MIAMI, FL — “Being a creep isn’t illegal.”
That’s one of investigative reporter Noah Pransky’s takeaways from his recent work for Gannett-owned WTSP in Tampa. For several months, Pransky has been reporting on shady “To Catch A Predator”-style stings by local cops and the men looking to meet adult women online who got caught up the stings. These men are not sympathetic victims. It’s easy to discount their concerns when they feel like they were unfairly or illegally targeted. Some of these men engaged in very graphic conversations online.
Pranksy’s work, which I wrote about in August, is getting results. WTSP aired a story last week pointing out that the stings have been curtailed in the Tampa Bay area in recent months, since Pransky first started reporting on them. The arrest numbers are down and the men who have been arrested no longer include young men—18- and 19-year-olds. Wrote Pransky on the station’s website:
A sting conducted by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department last weekend netted just 11 arrests, down significantly from the 30-40 arrests most Central Florida stings were netting in recent years. Local attorneys tell 10 News the drop is likely the result of increased attention on the officers’ behavior, prompting them to stop boosting arrest totals by bending the rules.
He also got significant traction from his August story about how the multi-agency sting operations included military police, in an apparent violation of a federal law going back to Reconstruction. Though local police may not have known it, the law has been clear for nearly 150 years: military personnel cannot be used to investigate local crimes. It’s actually a pretty central tenet to our civilian-run democracy.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri recently told Pransky, “We did not have that person from the Air Force participate (in the latest sting), and we won’t in any future operations because that’s not something that we should have done.”
Pransky is a dogged investigative reporter who tackles stories that others overlook. He won a George Polk award this year for his investigation into red light cameras. He found that the state had quietly reduced the time a traffic light had to stay yellow, adding millions in fines that the cameras generated, while potentially making intersections less safe.
And he’s taken this issue of the sex stings and run with it.
In addition to the broadcast story he did about how officials seem to be arresting fewer people in the stings, and focusing more tightly on older adults, he wrote a web-only piece last week about how local agencies are dodging his public records requests. The agencies denied his first requests for the conversations between undercover officers and the men they were targeting, arguing a legitimate exemption to the Florida public records law that allows police agencies to protect their investigative files. So Pransky asked for the cases that were no longer under investigation, the conversations with men who refused to go along with the undercover officer once they realized they were talking about sex with a child.
The agencies’ response to Pransky’s request for records of those conversations, that the records had been destroyed, shows the agencies were not complying with Florida law that requires records be archived, even after the cases are no longer under investigation. This is an important requirement in Florida. If it weren’t in place, agencies could investigate—and harass—anyone they believed might be a law-breaker and then destroy those files once they determined the person had not broken a law.
Public records stories are often difficult for TV. They don’t make good video. They make even worse video when the story is about how officials aren’t turning over records.
“This is more of a web series than broadcast,” Pransky told me, referring to the public records requests he’s been filing. “I did both stories at the same time, but only one made air. We pitched the other as a web exclusive.”
Good for WTSP for recognizing that stories that don’t make good video have a place on the web, and for unleashing Pransky on what his editors had to have known was never going to be a good video story. As news outlets converge their print, web and video operations, this sort of cross-platform reporting is important. And it’s not nearly as common from local television stations as it is from newspapers.
Reflecting on his sex stings reporting, Pransky observed that “talking dirty to an adult” is not against the law. “There are a lot of things that don’t pass the muster of social acceptability,” he said, but aren’t illegal. “In these cases, many times [the police] weren’t drawing the line between criminal acts and free speech.”