On Wednesday morning, the Polk County Sheriff did his part to prepare for the looming hurricane by directing a series of tweets at individuals with an outstanding warrant:
If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we’ll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail https://t.co/Qj5GX9XQBi
— Polk County Sheriff (@PolkCoSheriff) September 6, 2017
The tweets, sent on behalf of the office run by Sheriff Grady Judd, proceeded to explain that jail is, in fact a “safe shelter” and that law enforcement officials will be present at every storm shelter to “check IDs” and keep out “predators/sex offenders.”
A representative from the Polk County Sheriff’s office later told the Orlando Sentinel she hopes the tweets “actually lead to more people turning themselves in.”
But his statements may have the opposite effect, among other adverse consequences.
“The question here to put to the Polk county sheriff is, how does saying this serve the interest of public protection?” says Jesse Jannetta, a senior research associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “Does this in any way create a situation where more people are going to be safer through this storm? I don’t see how this would be the case. I just don’t see it.”
There are a number of reasons why threatening to arrest those seeking storm shelter could cause more harm than good. For one, it misallocates potential resources. So far, Irma is a category 5 hurricane, which means that it could hit nearby Tampa with enough force to blow the roofs off houses. Arresting people requires paperwork and manpower, Jannetta says. The additional police transportation required to bring people to jail could be better applied to the more pressing scenarios that the storm may cause.
Deterring people with outstanding warrants from seeking protection could also mean these people stay in their homes, not only endangering their lives but also siphoning resources for rescue support and medical attention. “You can potentially create more work for yourself or for first responders by making a statement like this,” says Jannetta.
The tweets also asserted that the Polk County jail is a “safe shelter,” but Hurricane Harvey taught us otherwise. According to the Houston Chronicle, inmates were deprived of toilets and running water during Harvey, and thousands were forced to evacuate to a facility in Navasota, 73 miles away from Houston. In the face of rising water levels and dwindling resources, some Houston jails even released inmates early during the storm. And when a jail floods, there are myriad safety concerns to consider—for inmates and other residents alike. “If you’ve got correctional facilities that are flooding, that creates a host of additional challenges even above and beyond when other public buildings and hospitals will face,” Jannetta says.
Resources aside, Jannetta cites another cause for concern: What a message like this might do to public trust of the police during a crisis. During Hurricane Harvey, Houston officials tried to quell such mistrust by asking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to cease normal operations, in an effort to prioritize public safety. They also took to shelters and Spanish media outlets to assure immigrants they would not be arrested for seeking help. According to Jannetta, Judd’s mocking tweets may have the opposite effect.
“At a really simple level, a part of what’s being communicated here is that if you go to these shelters because you need to be safe, and you’re interacting with law enforcement officers [who are threatening to arrest people], that may cause trust to erode,” he says. “That’s going to make people mistrustful of seeking shelter and safety.”
The Polk County Sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.