LAKELAND, Fla. - The Polk County Sheriff's Office says it sent undercover deputies to a minority rights group's meeting because it had received information that the group was planning unlawful activities at a rally outside of a local jail.
Sheriff's spokesman Scott Wilder said Friday that deputies had also heard that hundreds of people were planning to attend the 2012 jail demonstration.
"It would have been irresponsible for us not to have attended a public meeting where the planning was going to be occurring," Wilder said. "As it turns out, it was perfectly benign."
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd sent the deputies to a July 2012 meeting of the Poor and Minority Justice Association, which was held at a local church and open to the public. News of the spying was revealed this week when the group's leader gave an undercover deputy's email to the news media.
Members of the group say they weren't planning any illegal activities or violence. Pastor Clayton Cowart, who heads the justice group and the church where the meeting was held, said he feels his group's constitutional rights were violated. He's met with lawyers and is considering taking legal action.
Wilder said that undercover deputies had not attended any of the group's meetings before July 2012 and haven't attended any since.
"They have a perfect right to peacefully meet," he said, adding that on the day of the uneventful rally at the jail, sheriff's officials invited some of the group in to tour part of the facility.
The incident involving the Poor and Minority Justice Association is one of a string of events that Polk County civil rights leaders say is troubling to members of the community.
"We just had the March on Washington and we're dealing with some of the same issues that we were 50 years ago," said Faye Bellamy, a member of the NAACP and local concerned citizens groups. "I am concerned about black kids and black adults being treated fairly by law enforcement."
In May 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Judd's agency on behalf of the parents of seven teens who claimed they suffered as a result of being subject to an "adult correctional model" in the Polk County Jail. The teens were housed in the same building as the adult jail rather than being housed in a separate juvenile facility staffed by professionals who are experts in working with troubled children, the law center said in court filings.
Judd has defended his treatment of juveniles in court records. The lawsuit is still pending in federal court.
It was that lawsuit, and teens' conditions at the jail, that sparked the Poor and Minority Justice Association to hold a meeting on July 27, 2012, at Cowart's church.
An email provided to The Associated Press by Cowart was written by the undercover deputies at the meeting. It said various groups were planning on protesting at a Polk County Jail over the juveniles in the jail and noted that a planning meeting was scheduled for the following day at Polk State College.
A former employee of the school said he was fired for attending the college rally. Terrell Elliston told The Associated Press that a school officer visited him at work and asked him for information about the rally, but he refused to discuss it. He said he told the school's human resources department that he felt uncomfortable about the questioning. A week later, he was fired -- a few months, he said, after receiving a good performance evaluation.
"He told the officer, `This has nothing to do with my job. Nothing to do with anything. It's a private matter,"' said Elliston's attorney, Jim Thompson. "He didn't think he should be obligated to talk."
Elliston has filed suit against the school in federal court in Tampa.
Sheriff's officials said that undercover deputies also attended the meeting at the college. The jail rally drew 100 people and was peaceful.
Cowart and his group didn't know of the undercover deputies' presence at the meeting until this month, following a public records request.
Cowart asked the sheriff's office for all of the emails in which he was mentioned. A lawyer from the agency told him that his request would cost $16,606 to search the records. Cowart, who is black, said he then asked a white open-records activist to help, after which the office gave him the documents for free.
Wilder said the agency realized that the records price quoted to Cowart wasn't correct. He said the agency updated its software and expanded its parameters so keywords could be more easily searched. The agency gave Cowart the records for free because of the delay, he said.