WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - A Winter Haven community group is demanding answers from the Polk County Sheriff's Office about why two deputies were sent to a public meeting to spy on the gathering while posing as civilians.
The group Poor and Minority Justice Association was meeting at the Church of God the Bible Way July 26 to discuss concerns about law enforcement in the county. Many people voiced complaints about how the jail houses both juveniles and adults in the same facility, and how deputies handle traffic stops and other cases.
While the meeting was not closed, PMJA members said they were particularly disturbed that one of the deputies participated in the discussion as if he had been a victim of law enforcement abuse.
Tilex Altidor, a Winter Haven resident who attended the meeting, said he remembered the deputy's story vividly because it dealt with money. Altidor said the deputy, who he described as Hispanic, told the audience about how he was stopped by a Florida Highway patrol trooper while he was traveling from Miami. He said he had several thousand dollars in cash, Altidor said.
"He said they searched his vehicle for drugs, and couldn't find anything. But the catch was he took his money and fled," said Altidor. No report was filed, but several audience members offered to help the undercover deputy. Many at the meeting were reduced to tears after telling or hearing the stories about law enforcement abuse.
"So you have people being very emotional. Then, in retrospect, you have these 'posers' making up a false story in the midst of this," Altidor said. "It's very disturbing."
The Sheriff's Office later admitted that the deputies were not civilians, but were sent to the meeting because of a tip that the group's members might be plotting to commit crimes during an upcoming protest outside the county jail.
The notion that those in attendance were potential criminals angered Johnnie Thomas of Winter Haven. Thomas said when she read about the spying she was stunned.
"Disbelief. I could not believe what I was reading," Thomas said. She claimed there was no reason for sheriff's deputies to suspect the meeting was about criminal activity because it was well publicized and the general public was invited. Flyers were sent out beforehand, Thomas said.
The story from the deputy about the FHP trooper made Thomas extremely angry.
"This man is a liar," Thomas said. "And you want me to trust him as a law enforcement officer? I cannot. So I am thoroughly thoroughly disappointed," Thomas said.
Sheriff Grady Judd was unavailable for comment.
A sheriff's commander, Scott Wilder, said the suggestion that having the plain clothed deputies at the meeting was some kind of big brother scheme, communist plot, or racially motivated activity was overblown at best, insulting at worst.
"We did the right thing," Wilder said. "It would be irresponsible not to investigate a possible threat to the community," he said.
When asked about whether the deputies intentionally posed as victims and made up a story about a corrupt state trooper, Wilder couldn't say. "I don't know whether they talked at the meeting," Wilder said. "We found that the meeting was completely legit."
Thomas, meanwhile, said she wants Sheriff Judd to show up at the next meeting of the PMJA so they can ask him questions about the case personally.
"I want an apology," Thomas said.
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