By Gerard Albert, WLRN

A group of activists and religious leaders say Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony misled them about a pre-arrest diversion program that would allow nonviolent offenders to avoid jail time.

For months, Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice (BOLD Justice) have been pressing the sheriff to refer people arrested for nonviolent driving infractions — like driving with a suspended license — to the county’s adult civil citation program.

The civil citation program gives law enforcement officers the option of issuing citations instead of making an arrest for adults that qualify. The arresting officer can refer someone to the program, which is run by the county. Participants then must complete mandatory community service hours, pay a program fee and undergo a screening to determine if more services are warranted.

But at a press conference Monday outside of the sheriff’s office in Fort Lauderdale, the group called on the sheriff to meet with them after months of allegedly misleading claims about who gets referred into the program by his staff.

The group claims the sheriff and his staff told them that referrals for driving offenses had been happening for the past year. But last month, they were told the opposite by a BSO employee who, the group said, showed them the policy which specifically excludes driving offenses.

“In our interactions with Sheriff Tony in recent weeks, we believe he has not acted with integrity. He has disrespected the community. It is highly likely that during this time that more people have been saddled with a lifetime arrest record. This is the definition of evil,” said Brian Campbell, a pastor with the 15th Street Church of Christ in Pompano Beach.

“If the sheriff wants to regain the respect of the community, he needs to meet with us to resolve this immediately.”

Last year, WLRN found that the program was underused and Sheriff Tony made empty promises to BOLD Justice about having more screening for potential qualifying adults at the jail.

Documents appear to change policy

BOLD Justice said they were sent a training document from the sheriff and his staff last year claiming to be their “new policy.” The document is dated August 2019, the year that the county implemented the civil citation program.

In the document, eligible offenses for the program include misdemeanor criminal traffic offenses like driving with a suspended license or not having a valid driver’s license.

However in a document dated October 2023, the sheriff’s office policy for who is eligible for referral to the program excludes people that don’t have a valid state-issued identification. That means someone arrested for driving with a suspended or invalid license would not be eligible for referral to the program. WLRN has filed a public records request seeking any further updates to the policy.

A spokeswoman for BSO said Tuesday that licenses that are suspended or expired don’t make someone ineligible, and that the people arrested for these charges may not have met other requirements for the program.

“Sheriff Gregory Tony and members of his executive command have met with BOLD Justice. Our deputies will continue to follow the law and criteria for Broward County’s Adult Civil Citation program,” read a statement from the sheriff’s office Tuesday afternoon. The sheriff also called attention to his desire for alternatives to jailing those with mental health issues.

The Broward County Human Services Department serves as the lead agency responsible for the implementation, coordination and administration of the adult civil citation process. According to the Broward County code of ordinances, this department is supposed to determine the eligibility of people referred to the program.

In the ordinances the county does not mention anything about a valid ID but states that eligible offenses include, but are not limited to: possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, misdemeanor assault, misdemeanor battery (under certain circumstances), retail theft of a shopping cart, petit theft, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, littering, loitering, and possession of alcoholic beverages by persons under age 21.

According to an administrator at the Human Services department, law enforcement has full discretion over who gets referred and it is ultimately up to the agencies on how they will enforce the county ordinance in their agency.

Speaking at the press conference, Pastor Noel Rose said the situation has created doubts on his mind about Sheriff Tony’s intentions.

“Faith is important to us, but faith must manifest itself in real evidence. And so far we have not seen anything to say that his word is his bond,” he said. “And so our faith is pretty shaky right now because we need the evidence to substantiate the promises that he has made.”

View the original story here.