- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


June 2

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on the balance between privacy and crime-fighting:

On a TV crime show, cameras can focus on a bad guy’s face across a parking lot at midnight, and a few clicks of a mouse later, his entire life history is displayed on a computer screen.

That’s closer to reality than you might imagine. Facial recognition software is getting better - but its accuracy as a crime-fighting tool is still open to challenges. Meanwhile, questions over where the massive amount of data used for comparison comes from, who has access and how it’s checked for accuracy have privacy advocates sounding the alarm.

These issues are already playing out in court. Florida’s first major face-recognition case involves a Jacksonville man charged with selling crack cocaine to undercover officers. Willie Allen Lynch was arrested two weeks after the sale, when a smartphone photo taken by one of the officers was matched to a little-known database maintained by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Records included in Lynch’s appeal have focused attention on that database, the Florida Times-Union reported.

More than 250 law enforcement agencies in Florida - including the Volusia and Flagler county’s sheriffs’ offices and several local cities - use the system (known as the Face Analysis Comparison Examination System or FACES). An October report by Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology says FACES is the largest and most active law enforcement facial-recognition data bank in the country, running 8,000 searches a month through more than 33 million facial records. According to the center, the data included in FACES is not limited to criminal arrest records, but also includes driver’s license records - putting millions of law-abiding Floridians in the pool of potential matches.

It’s easy to see the value of these databases to law enforcement. But defense attorneys say the use of facial-recognition software often isn’t disclosed as part of pretrial discovery; Lynch’s initial arrest report stated he was identified through a manual search of the county’s own mugshot database. And though the FACES system usually suggests multiple hits, rather than positively identifying one face as a match, those are never disclosed to attorneys representing those accused - blocking them from exploring a potential “wrong guy” defense.

Police don’t need to state a reasonable suspicion to search the database, and there’s no audit protecting against its misuse. Nor is there solid research on the accuracy of the matches produced by FACES (or other similar databases around the nation).

Yet the only way Floridians can opt out of the system is to never obtain a driver’s license or state ID card. And consider one other fact, included in the Times-Union’s coverage: For at least a year, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office officials used a service called GeoFeedia to monitor social-media accounts of people tied to lawful political protests. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have since blocked GeoFeedia’s access to user data, but Facebook has its own massive database of images - tagged for facial recognition.

Many Floridians are willing to accept curbs on their privacy in order to live in a safer society. But those trade-offs must be made knowingly, carefully, and with adequate oversight. With facial recognition, those controls are nearly non-existent - even as the technology is tumbling forward into territory once only imagined. Florida currently leads the nation on the use of facial-recognition software. It should lead the nation on thoughtful oversight as well.

Online: https://www.news-journalonline.com/


June 3

The Ledger of Lakeland on the Florida Highway Patrol’s vacancies:

There’s never a cop around when you need one, the old saying goes. And with the Florida Highway Patrol, that seems to be the case.

The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that the FHP is facing a severe manpower shortage, perhaps the worst in its 78-year history, and faces a big dilemma in trying to fill the void.

According to the Times, 993 state troopers have quit the force or retired just since 2010 - that’s roughly half the number now patrolling Florida’s highways. And the drive to fill the vacancies is bogged down. Col. Gene Spaulding, the FHP’s director, told the newspaper that the agency runs three 80-member recruiting classes a year at its academy, and the current one is less than half full.

While many among us in freedom-loving Florida may cheer the fact that fewer troopers means fewer citations for speeding and other traffic offenses - the overall number of tickets written by state troopers plunged 22 percent between 2011 and 2016, the Times noted - the depletion of the FHP’s ranks ripples across the public safety realm with three undesirable effects.

First, it means elongated response times to accidents.

The FHP is, or perhaps was, the primary response and investigative agency for highway crashes. But those have ballooned in recent years - reported car crashes statewide spiked 73 percent from 2011 to ‘16 - and the trooper shortage means it takes longer to unclog traffic snarled by accidents. Polk County residents may consider that the next time they’re stuck for hours in a jam along Interstate 4, or even I-75, waiting for the FHP to clear the scene.

Secondly, the decrease in manpower means the workload for accident investigations has shifted to local law enforcement agencies, which strains their ability to serve their constituents. Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, a former state trooper, told the Times his department now investigates 71 percent of the crashes in his county - up from 38 percent in 2008. We’re sure that Sheriff Grady Judd and the police chiefs around Polk would echo that observation.

Lastly, we hate to think that law enforcement officers write tickets solely for the revenue, but the drop-off in tickets does equate to less money for the FHP, for the court system and for the state’s network of trauma centers, which receive a cut of ticket fines, depending on the offense. Without that, the taxpayers must dole out more to make the system work.

One potential reason for the flight from the FHP, as one might suspect, is money.

The Times pointed out that a rookie state trooper makes $33,977 a year. That salary has not changed since 2005.

Many troopers have departed for better pay at local law enforcement agencies. Comparatively, a starting deputy sheriff in Polk County can earn almost $44,100 a year.

The Times observed that newly minted Florida state troopers also make less than their counterparts in Alabama and Mississippi - where they make $39,000 and $38,000, respectively.

No offense to those states, but that, quite frankly, is embarrassing.

Florida has 20 million people, more than twice as many as those two states, and the fourth-largest state economy in America, churning out nearly $950 billion in economic output in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Alabama last year ranked 27th, with an economy less than one-quarter the size of Florida’s, while Mississippi’s economy, 36th overall, was slightly more than half of Alabama’s.

Forget local law enforcement agencies. If we can’t keep our state troopers on pace with those in two of America’s poorer states, it really should not surprise us that the FHP suffers from a recruiting and retention hardship.

The Legislature included a 5 percent pay raise for state troopers in the 2018 budget. That would help, if it survives Gov. Rick Scott’s veto, but more needs to be done.

One of Florida’s police unions recommended a $10,000 bump in starting pay for all law enforcement agencies. That may be extravagant across the board, but zeroing in on the FHP, the idea deserves some consideration. The Times reported that law enforcement salaries in neighboring Orange and Hillsborough, as in Polk, start at more than $40,000 a year, and their attrition rate is half that of state agencies. Taxpayers often forget they are on the hook for turnover costs as well salaries, which makes it more beneficial to keep current, experienced personnel happy.

This situation must be rectified before some start asking whether the FHP has outlived its usefulness, and start thinking that disbanding it in favor of local law enforcement is an answer - or that the current troopers who are asked to do so much more for so much less begin to think the same thing.

Online: https://www.theledger.com/


June 6

The Palm Beach Post on the state legislature’s special budget session:

Well, at least the schoolkids look to get a little more money.

That’s about the only bright spot to be gleaned from the rubber-stamp of a legislative special session that’s slated to begin today and end on Friday.

Although the task is unfinished, Florida’s lawmakers aren’t scheduled to talk about medical marijuana. They aren’t rethinking their huge giveaways to the charter school industry, though they’re still leaving per-pupil public school funding among the nation’s lowest. And they still cut $30 million from the nation’s top-ranked community college system.

This quick confab in Tallahassee is an insult to voters, and to good government. It was announced abruptly last Friday after Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran apparently agreed in secret how to resolve major unfinished issues from the regular session - which itself had ended with a flurry of ill-considered legislation mostly decided without witness testimony or open debate.

As announced by Corcoran, the deal setting up the special session - made with no input from Democrats - restores Visit Florida to last year’s funding level of $76 million, as if Corcoran’s repeated ranting about that agency’s wastefulness never happened.

Instead of beefing up Enterprise Florida, which Scott wanted to expand and Corcoran wanted to eliminate, they’ll spend $85 million on a new economic-incentive agency called the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund. Which sounds a lot like same wine, different bottle.

And to put a better face on a budget that gave public schools a measly 1.2 percent overall increase, the lowest hike in years, Scott agreed to add $215 million to the K-12 budget. Now, instead of an embarrassingly low average increase of $24 per student, legislators will weigh a bill to boost per-pupil spending by $100.

The governor found the money, in large part, by vetoing $410 million in local projects, including $10.7 million worth in Palm Beach County.

Which means goodbye to $2 million for discovering new drugs and converting basic research into medical cures at The Scripps Research Institute. Scratch $1.1 million in scientific fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for Neuroscience, and $1 million from the Florida Atlantic University Honors Program. So long (once again) to basic improvements for the long-delayed Lake Worth Park of Commerce.

Meanwhile, nothing essential has been changed in the odious HB 7069, which wants to give $140 million to for-profit companies to set up charter schools near struggling traditional public schools. This slapped-together measure - which rightly ought to be vetoed - would also force public school districts to give charter schools a share of property tax money earmarked for building construction and maintenance. In Palm Beach County, school officials say the hit could exceed $230 million over 10 years.

The House Democratic leader, Janet Cruz, is altogether correct in calling this special session “a farce being inflicted upon the people of Florida.”

“To pretend this newest backroom deal will help public education in our state is laughable,” the Tampa Democrat said.

More outrageous, this special session - as yet - is not scheduled to address a long-overdue regulatory framework for medical marijuana, a further insult to the 71 percent of Floridians who voted in November to legalize cannabis for people with serious medical conditions.

The Legislature failed miserably in the regular session to set ground rules for what’s expected to be one of the nation’s largest medical marijuana markets. The lawmakers left the matter to slow-moving bureaucrats at the state Department of Health - a breathtaking abdication of responsibility.

Corcoran said last Friday that the House wants to take up the question of medical marijuana. Negron signaled a willingness for that, saying Tuesday he has made no agreements as to the “outcomes” of the special session, nor on limiting the “subject matter.”

We would be opposed to backroom deal-making even if the horse-trading and handshakes produced sound laws and smart policies. But that’s not what we have here. To get to this special session, Florida’s Republican leaders have dealt in the shadows to produce a relative turkey.

There’s still a chance, however, for lawmakers to do right by Floridians. They can pass legislation that’s less supine to corporations and for-profit charter school companies, and more responsive to public schools and the statewide majority that voted for Amendment 2. They can even take more than three days to do it.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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