by Amy Martinez
Updated 9 months ago
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has prompted police departments around Florida to review their policies, procedures and training.
On the afternoon of Aug. 27, a woman in Deltona called police to report that a bearded black man wearing a white tank top and dark shorts had stolen a string trimmer from her back yard.
Meanwhile, Joseph Griffin had gone for a jog in his Deltona neighborhood, about two miles from the woman’s house. Griffin, 28, a former Army staff sergeant, is an assistant nurse manager in the intensive care unit at AdventHealth New Smyrna Beach. He lives in Deltona with his wife and two children.
He’d been given the day off from work to celebrate the birth of his second daughter. Griffin, who is black and has a beard, wore dark shorts and a white tank top with the word HEEiST printed on it — an acronym for Helping Everyone Experience Inner Strength Together, a mentoring program he started to help local youth.
Halfway through his four-mile run, Griffin encountered Volusia County sheriff’s deputy Valente Estrada, who stopped him. “There’s a burglary that happened, and you kind of fit the description,” Estrada told Griffin. “Let me make sure that you are not him.”
Griffin complied with the officer’s request to hand over his driver’s license. He also used his phone to record the encounter. “If something happens to me, you all better raise hell,” he said to those watching on the live broadcast he shared on Facebook. Estrada radioed his supervisor and got instructions to detain Griffin, whom he then handcuffed and asked to wait on the sidewalk as other deputies arrived at the scene.
“With everything that’s going on, it’s a little bit scary,” Griffin told Estrada, referring to recent police killings like that of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
Estrada tried to reassure Griffin. “Nothing’s going to happen to you,” Estrada said. “I’m going to take care of you. I promise you that.”
The woman who reported the theft was brought to the scene and told deputies Griffin wasn’t the man who took her trimmer. Griffin thanked Estrada for reassuring him and concluded, “Wrong place, wrong time.”
Deputies later arrested another man for stealing the trimmer, and Griffin’s encounter went viral on social media, where people commended both him and Estrada for remaining calm.
To Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood, who released body camera footage of the interaction, the incident was evidence that the policies he introduced at his department are working. Since becoming sheriff four years ago, Chitwood has instituted mandatory implicit bias and de-escalation training to try to reduce racial profiling and the use of force by deputies.
He says the officers who detained Griffin likely would have handcuffed a white suspect under similar circumstances The department’s policy on detaining people with handcuffs gives deputies leeway to judge what’s safest, regardless of whether the offense was violent or non-violent. “Everybody needs to be safe, and if that means handcuffing somebody for five minutes, then so be it,” he says.
Chitwood, a former Philadelphia police officer and Daytona Beach police chief, believes police should think of themselves as guardians rather than warriors (“In Volusia County, a Different Approach,” page 90).
“We’re not the Marines. We’re not at war with our community. The overwhelming majority of the people we come into contact with are law-abiding citizens,” he says.
Chitwood had Griffin, a former police officer in the Army, help lead an antiracial bias class in October. Griffin’s message to the deputies: “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” Griffin says. “We’re not all guilty.”
A recent comprehensive study of racial differences in police use of force was conducted by Roland Fryer, a Harvard economics professor, who looked at data from communities across the country, including four large Florida counties, between 2000 and 2015 (“Studying How Police Treat Blacks,” page 89).
Fryer’s data indicated, contrary to his expectations, that police officers weren’t more likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects. But police are much more likely to use non-lethal force against minorities, Fryer found: Blacks and Hispanics were at least 53% more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police — “from officers putting their hands on civilians to striking them with batons.”
His study — supported by findings in at least two other studies — also refuted the notion that police dealings with black suspects were a rational response to dangerous suspects. Blacks who complied with police were less likely to experience violence than blacks who didn’t comply but were still 21% more likely to experience force than whites who complied.
The implication from the research is that many in law enforcement see blacks as inherently more dangerous — a perception that creates challenges for law enforcement officials looking for new approaches to policing.
While condemning Floyd’s killing, Florida law enforcement officials and most politicians have rejected extreme measures like shifting major funding from police departments to social programs or eliminating funding for police departments altogether.
Top-down, state-driven reform also appears unlikely. Policing in Florida, as in all states, is highly decentralized. The state sets some training standards through the Criminal Justice Standards & Training Commission, an arm of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (“Standards and Practices,” page 92), but many decisions about policing policy and oversight are made at the local level — there are nearly 400 law enforcement agencies statewide, each with its own training and policies that dictate officer behavior.
The responses of law enforcement organizations so far in Florida have focused on training and operational policies:
In September, the Florida Police Chiefs Association recommended that local agencies ban chokeholds and other neck-related restraints, improve public communication and actively recruit officers who reflect the demographics of their communities. FDLE data show that less than 10% of law enforcement officers statewide are black, compared to 17% of Florida’s population overall.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who led the city’s police department from 2009 to 2015, announced the creation of a community task force on policing and a change in policy when it comes to investigating police shootings. Castor said the FDLE, and not the city’s police department, will investigate shootings involving its officers.
Orlando hired police consultancy Bowman Group to evaluate its police department and recommend changes. The city also is working with Bethune-Cookman University’s Center for Law and Social Justice to improve relations between police and predominantly black neighborhoods.
St. Petersburg, which had already adopted a “community policing” approach to try to build relationships between neighborhoods and the police, said it would send social workers to non-violent 911 calls, a strategy aimed at defusing potentially dangerous confrontations between the police and mentally ill individuals. The city’s police department said it would use $3.8 million to fund up to 20 workers, who won’t carry guns.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams pledged to turn over internal investigations of officer-involved shootings to local prosecutors within a month after the incidents occur.
The Miami-Dade County Commission voted to create a citizen review board to investigate complaints of police misconduct.
One factor absent from most of the discussion is the difficulty in identifying and weeding out officers who show a propensity toward racial profiling and violence. “It’s very difficult to fire officers,” says Jacinta Gau, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. She points to both civil service protections that, while meant to prevent politically motivated firings, can help keep bad cops on the job, and to union contracts.
“Police unions will routinely fight a police agency’s efforts to establish a disciplinary structure that would meaningfully hold officers accountable,” she says. “And then I think some of it is just a lack of willpower on the part of certain executives. It’s maybe not a battle they care to pick, or maybe they don’t see anything wrong.”
Gau says every police department should have an early-warning system to alert supervisors when an officer starts to rack up too many use-of-force incidents or citizen complaints.
“An officer who commits an egregious act — you know, the ones who make the headlines — in all likelihood has gotten into trouble before,” she says. “Not every department monitors disciplinary issues or the number of use-of-force reports that each officer is generating, and they only step in after that person has done something really terrible.”
Chitwood, the Volusia sheriff, says that in addition to installing an early-warning system for misconduct, he has added more body cameras to the department. “When I first got here, patrol had body cameras. Then, we expanded them to the SWAT team and the special operations division, and we just got a whole new batch of cameras,” he says. “Now, whenever a deputy pulls a Taser or firearm out of their holster, it will activate all cameras within 75 feet.”
Several years ago, Chitwood used body camera footage to verify a citizen’s complaint against a deputy who stole $200 during a DUI stop. The deputy ultimately surrendered his law enforcement license and was convicted for misdemeanor theft.
“Do we have racist cops? Absolutely. Do we have brutal cops? Cops who lie? Absolutely,” Chitwood says. “Our job is to try to separate them from the organization.”
Some, including police union representatives, think much of the criticism of the police is unfair and hurts efforts to diversify their forces.
Tommy Reyes, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 1,800 current and former Miami police officers, points to the hashtag #8CantWait, which began trending on social media in June. The hashtag refers to eight reform measures that some believe would significantly reduce police violence. In addition to banning chokeholds and instituting a duty for police to intervene if they see misconduct by another officer, the proposals include mandator de-escalation training, comprehensive reporting of use-of-force incidents and a requirement that officers give a warning before shooting.
Reyes says each measure already is in place at the Miami Police Department. “I remember somebody tagged us on Twitter, and I was like, ‘we do this already. Why are you tagging us?’ ” Reyes laughs. “No profession is perfect, but I think we’re being over-criticized.”
Satellite Beach Police Chief Jeff Pearson, who is president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, says the current climate has made it harder to recruit officers. More support for the profession would help with recruitment and diversity, he says.
“For years and years, if we had an opening for a police officer, we’d have well over 100 applications. We could pick from the absolute cream of the crop,” Pearson says. “Now, we’ll have positions open, and we don’t have anybody putting in for them. This is a great agency — we’re on the beach, we get paid well, and we have good equipment — and we have to go out and beat bushes to recruit people. There are many reasons for it, but the climate today is certainly part of it.”
Pearson says the association is now working on more recommendations for local agencies to consider.
“We’re going to be looking at how we can better connect and communicate with communities,” Pearson says. “The biggest thing we keep hearing is that there’s just not proper communication between law enforcement and the community. Unfortunately, what many chiefs do is wait until something happens before they start to reach out to community leaders.”
Others are looking to state law to mandate policy changes. State Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, says he has drafted a bill that would require local agencies to use body and dashboard cameras and release the footage, train officers in implicit bias and de-escalation and publish annual data on racial disparities in the use of deadly force. He also believes there should be an independent state panel to investigate police shootings.
Bracy says police reform, in some way or another, has a good chance of passing next spring. “My guess is that there will be small steps taken toward police accountability,” he says. “I think people are starting to see the interactions between police and communities of color in a different light.”
Chitwood says the policy changes he’s made at the Volusia sheriff’s office have led to a reduction in use-of-force incidents. The number of times the county’s deputies reported using force on the job fell from 122 in 2017 to 65 in 2019, a 47% decline. Of 1,687 serious crimes recorded in the jurisdiction between Jan. 1 and Sept. 5, deputies made arrests in 841 cases, a clearance rate of 50%.
“We’re making arrests for burglaries, robberies, shootings, stolen cars and car break-ins in proportion to the crimes that are occurring. We’re making fewer arrests, but our arrests are more effective, and crime is down since 2016 over 40%,” Chitwood says. “So you say to yourself, we’re onto something here. Let’s see if we can sustain that momentum.”
Studying How Police Treat Blacks
Roland Fryer, a Harvard economics professor, and student researchers assembled detailed data from police reports in Houston, Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, Orlando, Jacksonville and four other counties in Florida. They examined 1,332 shootings between 2000 and 2015 and also looked at data compiled from New York City’s “stop, question and frisk” program.
The findings, which Fryer also summarized in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal:
- There are large racial differences in police use of non-lethal force. The New York City data indicated that police were 53% more likely to use physical force on a black civilian than a white one. A separate, national dataset indicated police were more than three times likely to use physical force on blacks. “This is true of every level of non-lethal force, from officers putting their hands on civilians to striking them with batons,” Fryer wrote.
- Complying with the police helps, but it helps whites more than blacks. “Black civilians who were recorded as compliant by police were 21% more likely to suffer police aggression than compliant whites,” Fryer wrote. “The inequity clashed with the notion that the difference in police treatment of blacks and whites was a rational response to danger. And it complicates what we tell our kids: Compliance does make you less likely to endure a beat-down — but the benefit is larger if you are white.”
- The study found no racial differences in officer-involved shootings. The study included reports from Houston, where the data included “situations in which gunfire might have been justified by department guidelines but the cops didn’t shoot. This is a key piece of data that popular online databases don’t include. No matter how we analyzed the data, we found no racial differences in shootings overall, in any city in particular, or in any subset of the data.”
- Investigations of police after “viral shooting incidents” can have unintended consequences. Investigations not preceded by viral incidents of deadly force, on average, reduced homicides and total felony crime, the study found. “But for the five investigations that were preceded by a viral incident of deadly force, there was a stark increase in crime — 893 more homicides and 33,472 more felonies than would have been expected with no investigation. The increases in crime coincide with an abrupt change in the quantity of policing activity. In Chicago alone after the killing of Laquan McDonald, the number of police-civilian interactions decreased by 90% in the month the investigation was announced.”
Importantly, in the eight cities that had a viral incident but no investigation, there was no subsequent increase in crime. “Investigations are crucial, but we need to find ways of holding police accountable without sacrificing more black lives,” Fryer wrote.
In Volusia County, a Different Approach
The sheriff wins praise for a training program that emphasizes de-escalation.
Mike Chitwood has been sheriff of Volusia County since 2017. His agency, which employs about 420 officers, polices unincorporated areas and several municipalities. Chitwood, a former Philadelphia police officer, was Daytona Beach police chief from 2006 to 2016.
Chitwood advocates what’s called the critical decision-making model, a training program developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a policy institute based in Washington, D.C. The program teaches officers to slow down, create space and try to communicate and negotiate their way toward a more peaceful resolution with someone experiencing a mental or emotional crisis.
“Everybody knows we can use force, and nobody says we can’t use force,” Chitwood says. “All they ask is that we use it correctly and with proportionality. And they’re also asking us to be part of the community, not apart from the community.”
Chitwood traces his approach to policing back to his days as a Philadelphia police sergeant under John Timoney, the city’s police chief from 1998 to 2002. Chitwood met Timoney after an incident in which a gunman fired shots at police and tried to run away before being tackled in a Philadelphia alley. Chitwood, despite being the supervising officer at the scene, piled onto the assailant.
The assailant “was probably getting roughed up a little, and that should’ve never happened once he was in custody,” Chitwood says. “There was no reason to have 50 cops there.”
Timoney called Chitwood to his office, where his personnel file was open on the desk. Timoney told Chitwood: “You have a brilliant future. But I’ll tell you right now, if something like that happens again, you’re not going to have a future. Your job is to do the right thing. Yeah, the guy shot at the cops, and you chased him, and you cuffed him. But all that extra-curricular s---, that’s got to stop, and you’ve got to stop it.”
Timoney encouraged Chitwood to go back to school and get his college degree. Chitwood now has his bachelor’s from Eastern University in Pennsylvania and a master’s in criminal justice from Nova Southeastern University. (Timoney, who died in 2016, was police chief in Miami from 2003 to 2010.)
In 2006, Chitwood became Daytona Beach police chief, a job he held for 10 years. Under his leadership, the city’s police department mandated body cameras and de-escalation training, introduced community policing and bike patrols and established a scholarship fund to put more college-educated police on the streets.
With endorsements from both the NAACP and the National Rifle Association, Chitwood successfully ran for Volusia County sheriff promising to increase transparency and strengthen community ties. During his first six months on the job, he faced a surge in deputy-involved shootings.
“While they were all lawful, some of them were awful,” he says. “We had an incident where a deputy lost his Taser during a struggle in the bathroom with someone who was high. The second deputy came in and shot and killed the guy who got control of the Taser. How he didn’t kill his partner, I don’t know. It just showed we were a little bit out of control, not taking all the factors into consideration before we jumped to the next level.”
Chitwood, a registered independent, hired the Police Executive Research Forum to help him figure out what needed to change. At the time, new deputy recruits began their field training with a course called “Deputy Awareness: Surviving the Career.” Trainees entered a building under a sign that said, “Confidence in the Line of Fire.” A course on guns was called “Combat Shooting.”
PERF advised Chitwood to revamp his training program to emphasize de-escalation. The course on guns was renamed “firearms training,” and the sign above the training center door was replaced to reflect a different mindset: “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.”
Today, Chitwood requires all new deputies to take an eight-hour class on de-escalation and implicit bias. Veteran deputies go through four hours of deescalation training every year, and those who show exemplary use of de-escalation in the line of duty get a medal.
He says he opposes shifting money away from policing on the grounds that it would lead to less training for officers. “Roughly 85% of my budget is spent on human resources — pensions, payroll, benefits — which leaves me only 15% for training and technology,” he says.
Two years ago, Brodie Hughes, president of the Volusia County Deputies Association, clashed with Chitwood over a proposed rule against shooting at cars. Chitwood wanted a strict ban; the union got him to accept a more nuanced approach that gives officers some leeway.
“Things don’t always go according to plan,” Hughes says. “Let’s not take away a deputy’s career and hang him out to dry because of the way he reacted to a situation forced upon him by some bad guy.”
Hughes, a longtime hostage negotiator for the sheriff’s office, says there needs to be a balance between the guardian and warrior mindset of policing. Chitwood “likes to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘We’re not warriors; we’re guardians now.’ Unfortunately, when people start shooting at deputies or the public, the public still wants that warrior to show up and run toward the gunfire,” Hughes says.
Chitwood recently won re-election to another four-year term as sheriff in an uncontested race. Hughes says Chitwood, whose bookshelf displays a photo of him with Barack Obama, enjoys broad support in the community, especially among minority groups.
“He’s truly out there with everybody, and I think that’s good for us,” Hughes says. “Look, we have one goal for the day — to put a bad guy in jail. Nobody comes to work and says, ‘I’m going to focus on this group or that group.’ We have one group we focus on, and that’s bad guys.”
Tampa’s Police Department
Last June, amid nationwide protests over police killings of black people, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor created a task force to look at possible changes for the city’s police force, saying it was time to “have uncomfortable but necessary conversations.” The group included members of Tampa’s minority communities and the Tampa Police Department and was guided by University of South Florida criminologist Bryanna Fox, a former FBI special agent.
Over two days and eight hours, the group met to discuss everything from police misconduct and accountability to a lack of mental health services in the city. Fox also administered a survey to the community members. “There were some areas where they felt the police were doing really well. For example, crime reduction: They felt, on average, that the odds of being a victim of property crime or even a violent crime were very low,” Fox says. “But in terms of things like trust, accountability and communication, TPD scored a bit lower. They felt like, how can we trust the police if we think there’s misconduct and they never are held accountable for it.”
Fox and a team of graduate students then distilled the survey data and conversations into a report outlining 17 steps that they believed Tampa’s police department should take to build better relations with the community. In late August, they presented their findings to Castor and Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who pledged to implement every recommendation. “Clearly, people aren’t happy,” Dugan said at a news conference.
The planned changes include a re-emphasis on community policing, mandatory de-escalation training, funding for social workers to accompany officers on mental health and addiction calls, more transparency around useof- force incidents and an expanded early intervention program to flag officers who show a propensity toward racial profiling or violence.
“I was not expecting them to say ‘yes’ to all of them. I thought maybe they’d say, ‘We’ll do a few now, and a few later,’” says Fox, who has been hired to help evaluate implementation of the changes. “We may have tapped into something that people in the field already knew was going on. If you don’t trust police, you’re not going to empower them to do their jobs. And when police can’t do their jobs, there are a lot of implications.”
Florida’s Police Officers: Standards and Practices
- State Oversight
The Criminal Justice Standards & Training Commission, aided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, certifies law enforcement and corrections officers and oversees state training requirements. The 19-member, governor-appointed commission consists mostly of sheriffs, police chiefs and law enforcement or corrections officers who serve four-year terms. One member is a state resident who does not work in law enforcement. The commission determines the curriculum at police academies and decides what type of training officers must complete to renew their certification every four years. Local agencies and academies must train officers to meet the minimum standards required by the commission but can add their own in-service training requirements, as well.
Florida is one of 34 states that do not require officers to be trained in de-escalation, according to Las Vegasbased Apex Officer, a provider of virtual reality training technology for law enforcement agencies.
Martin County sheriff’s deputy William Weiss, who chairs the state commission, says the board has not looked at de-escalation training but will consider any changes recommended by Florida’s training center directors. “That’s something they’re probably putting together and will bring to a commission meeting at some point,” Weiss says.
- Police Academies
Police recruits must attend a state-approved police academy, where they spend up to six months training and learning about the basics of police work, including firearms, self-defense, criminal law, pursuit driving, arrest procedures, evidence gathering and first aid. Some law enforcement agencies require candidates to pay for their own basic training, which can cost several thousand dollars. Florida has about three dozen police academies, most run by community colleges.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood says the cost of training is a barrier to aspiring officers who might not be able to afford it. Many recruits pay the tuition costs and don’t get hired until after graduation. Chitwood is seeking state approval to offer basic training in-house, which would allow him to pay deputy recruits while they attend the academy, he says. “For recruiting purposes, I could go out and say, ‘You’re going to be my employee from day one,’ ” Chitwood says. “The day you enter the academy, we’re going to be paying you.”
- Ongoing Training
After being licensed and hired, new law enforcement officers go through field training at their hiring agency, which can take another two months or so. The state then requires them to complete 40 hours of training every four years to renew their licenses. Additionally, each local agency has its own continuing training requirements.
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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