Pinellas County, Florida -- Detectives are sharpening the focus of their undercover, "To Catch a Predator"-inspired sex stings following a series of 10 Investigates reports.
A sting conducted by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Clearwater Police Department last weekend netted just 11 arrests, down significantly from the 30-40 arrests most Central Florida stings were netting in recent years. Local attorneys tell 10 News the drop is likely the result of increased attention on the officers' behavior, prompting them to stop boosting arrest totals by bending the rules.
"(Detectives) are trying to toe the line a little bit more than they were six months ago," said Hillsborough County defense attorney Tony Candela. "They were doing things that were not productive. They were going after people who had not done anything wrong."
Pinellas County and Clearwater ran a similar sting in January, netting 35 arrests. But then 10 Investigates ran its initial story questioning how the stings were operated.
A subsequent sting in April netted "in excess of 20" arrests. Then, 10 Investigates ran a four-part series prior to the most recent sting:
Part 1: Officers bending the rules on sex stings
Part 2: Stings not arresting whom you think they are
Part 3: ACLU leader calls for federal review of DOJ dollars
Part 4: Air Force participation appears to break federal laws
Other Central and West Florida agencies have seen similar drops in arrests in recent months.
10 Investigates has also been fighting for public records on the secretive stings, which prompted a fifth story:
Another noticeable change in the most recent Pinellas County operation was how few young adults were targeted. In a drastic shift from previous Florida "Predator"-inspired stings, none of the men arrested were under 28 years old.
Additionally, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri forewent the traditional post-operation press conference, which also came under scrutiny during 10 Investigates' coverage.
"The effort (from detectives) was the same, and we're getting (fewer arrests), so...its a good sign," Gualtieri said, adding that his detectives are operating with the same guidelines and integrity they always have.
"I don't think we were doing anything wrong to begin with. We're always careful...certainly never want to entrap anybody or entice anybody or do anything that's improper."
"There's a problem," Gualtieri said of sex offenders in the community. "So we need to make sure they aren't doing it...and we will continue to conduct these investigations to keep the kids safe."
Gualtieri noted fewer outside agencies lent detectives to this operation, including the Air Force, which 10 Investigates pointed out was participating in civilian stings illegally.
"We did not have that person from the Air Force participate (in the recent sting)," Gualtieri said, "and we won't in any future operations because that's not something that we should have done."