It could be a new era of McCarthyism in Palm Beach County, Florida, where police are set to unveil a new $1 million “violence prevention” program that encourages Floridians to report neighbors for making hateful or suspicious comments about the government.
The program, led by Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, will provide “prevention intervention” units — featuring specially trained deputies, mental health professionals and caseworkers to handle the reports. The teams will respond to citizen phone calls made to a 24-hour hotline with a knock on the door and a referral to services, if needed,” reports the Palm Beach Post.
Sheriff Bradshaw said concerned citizens can report those who make anti-government political statements that may be deemed a prelude to violent action.
“We want people to call us if the guy down the street says he hates the government, hates the mayor and he’s gonna shoot him,” Bradshaw said. “What does it hurt to have somebody knock on a door and ask, ‘Hey, is everything OK?’”
The program, advertised as an anti-violence initiative, has many worried. For civil liberties advocates, the announcement is reminiscent of the early 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy (Wis.) encouraged Americans to report their neighbors if they were suspected of holding Communist beliefs.
During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans accused of being Communists were subjected to aggressive investigations by police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Loyalty review boards were also established to determine if certain citizens were sufficiently pro-American. The Palm Beach program is a far cry from the red scare of the Cold War, but mental health advocates and civil liberties groups are worried about the possible negative effects this program could have.
“How are they possibly going to watch everybody who makes a comment like that? It’s subjective,” said Liz Downey, executive director of the Palm Beach County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We don’t want to take away people’s civil liberties just because people aren’t behaving the way we think they should be.”
Bradshaw remains a strong supporter of the program, claiming that the initiative could help prevent mass shootings.
“Every single incident, whether it’s Newtown, that movie theater or the guy who spouts off at work and then goes home and kills his wife and two kids — in every single case, there were people who said they knew ahead of time that there was a problem,” Bradshaw said. “If the neighbor of the mom in Newtown had called somebody, this might have saved 25 kids’ lives.”
Bradshaw acknowledged that “anyone in a messy divorce or in a dispute with a neighbor could abuse the hotline,” and that it will prompt “frivolous complaints.” But he tried to assuage fears by saying in a recent statement that “we [police] know how to sift through frivolous complaints.”
The violence prevention program is poised to launch pending approval by Governor Rick Scott.