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How a pro-Trump county elected a pro-immigrant reformer as sheriff

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — This was one of the last places in the South to end segregation, today a land of gun enthusiasts and NASCAR, where Jews are still cautioned not to draw attention by hanging mezuzahs on their doors, and local history books say little, or nothing, about African-American life here. The most notable change in the county’s demographics in the generations since Jim Crow is that black sharecroppers who used to tend white-owned farms have been replaced by thousands of undocumented Mexican farmhands.

Volusia is Trump country. It gave the Republican victor 54 percent of its vote in 2016.

So how, in this time of acrimonious national division, did Volusia County elect as its sheriff a man like Michael J. Chitwood, a product of South Philadelphia, a self-styled progressive reformer, a vocal defender of undocumented immigrants? How did Chitwood gain endorsements from both the National Rifle Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and decisively defeat both the favorite of the “good-ol’-boy” network and the darling of the deputies union?

And with such a mandate, how is he holding up a year into the Trump administration?

A new sheriff in town

Chitwood, 54, is the son of a police chief in a Philadelphia suburb, and rose to lieutenant in the Philadelphia Police Department. He moved south 11 years ago to accept an appointment as chief of police in this county’s urban core, Daytona Beach. He says he ran for the sheriff’s job because an elected post would be less beholden to civilian bureaucrats. There has been speculation that this is a debut for higher office.

Part of Chitwood’s appeal, like President Trump’s, is a brash, uncensored, critics-be-damned style that makes him a forceful and familiar presence on local TV. He is famous for calling crime suspects “scumbags,” and insulting — in his Rocky Balboa accent — politicians, lawyers and anyone else who disagrees with his unfiltered opinions. In May, embroiled in a budget dispute, he called the county’s highest-ranking executive “a lying sack of s***.”

Around here, that is regarded as “telling it like it is,” especially since he is an egalitarian insulter.

“He calls anybody a scumbag,” said Clarence “Bo” Davenport, the former longtime director of public works in the county seat. “I said, ‘Man, you can’t come down to the South with that junk. Them good ol’ boys take care of you.’ I told him that. Well, he looked at me, and said, ‘I can handle myself.'”

Chitwood is a registered independent, and while his demeanor is Trumpian, his views on criminal justice are anything but. Over beers, Chitwood tends to go off on social justice soliloquies that emphasize the woeful legacy of segregation or the dire need for federal immigration reform.

Since January 2017 he has worked from the reformist playbook, adopting measures he had practiced in Daytona Beach: deploying the data-driven policing strategy known as Compstat, instructing officers to never turn off their body cameras when responding to a call, mandating classes on de-escalating conflict and police bias, and deemphasizing the weapons proficiency of new recruits: “Why is it so important that the first thing we do is assess your shooting skills?” he asks.

Noting that since 2012, sheriff’s deputies have fatally shot 13 civilians, Chitwood spent $92,000 in drug forfeiture money to hire a Washington, D.C., policing think tank to review the agency’s use of force. He removed the training academy’s welcome sign that celebrated, “Confidence In the Line of Fire,” explaining, “What that preaches is that we are military. And that’s the problem with my training division. I have so many ex-military guys in there.”

To the department’s old guard, this is seen as an attempt to transplant Eastern elite notions in alien soil.

Chitwood is a registered independent, and while his demeanor is Trumpian, his views on criminal justice are anything but. Photo by John Carlos Frey/The Marshall Project

“If you can’t shoot a gun, and you don’t have the ability to learn how to shoot a gun, you aren’t going to be any good to us,” said Evan Ort, a former Army marksman who was the department’s gun instructor until June when he quit in protest. Ort was infuriated when Chitwood brought in the consultants from the Police Executive Research Forum to critique the department’s culture. He warned that the new emphasis on de-escalation was likely to get a deputy killed, and he mocked the sheriff’s talk of “wellness” and “mindfulness” as irrelevant to a department that he said is understaffed and overworked.

“Those cats are f****** tired, plain and simple,” Ort said. “When you are that tired, you aren’t going to eat healthy. You are not going to have any mindfulness because you are f****** tired all the time.”

Chitwood’s most formidable obstacle is resistance within his cadre of 415 officers. He scored a few points with his troops after being part of a successful months-long contract negotiation with the union, formalized on Dec. 21, that bumps deputies’ starting salary to about $19 per hour. The pay increases don’t lessen the rank-and-file disdain for their new boss. Overtime shifts are mandatory, deputies complain of more aggressive discipline (though that is not reflected in department records) and they are quitting or retiring at a pace that accelerated when Chitwood took over.

One deputy was fired in September because he insulted Chitwood’s leadership style in a Facebook post. (Law enforcement officers, Chitwood noted, don’t have the same First Amendment rights as civilians.) Deputies have passed around a clip from a German movie of Hitler berating his generals, with subtitles taken from Chitwood’s rants. “It’s been a rough first year for the deputies,” says Sgt. Brodie Hughes, president of the Volusia County Deputies Association.

Detractors see Chitwood as calculating, noting that he told the NRA in a pre-endorsement questionnaire that he would consider supporting a law to let Floridians carry weapons openly, a position the Florida Sheriffs Association and most progressives oppose. The gun lobby awarded him an “A” grade. Chitwood said he just registered a willingness to discuss the issue.

Presented with all this criticism, Chitwood responded, “All I am gonna say is this: f*** ‘em. I got a job for four years, if they don’t like it, get out.”

Pressed about how he expects to create lasting reforms in such a toxic environment, Chitwood cast his critics as the vestiges of a time that is past, or soon will be.

“The easy part for me is convincing the residents. The residents have seen me at work for 10 years” in Daytona Beach, Chitwood said in one of several interviews. “The cops, they are the skeptical ones. They are the harder group to get to follow you. Because no one likes to be second guessed. No one wants to change. The community embraces change. They want an accountable, well-trained police force that is in tune in their community.”

“They’ve grown up in a cocoon here,” he said of his deputies. “They train together. They don’t look to train outside. They don’t read articles from outside. They don’t get educated from outside. Everything is Volusia County.”

Chitwood intends to expose his officers to reform scholars and the more liberal policing cultures of Los Angeles and New York, “where they can see, ‘Oh s***, there’s another way of doing things.’”

“Good ol’ boys”

The old way of doing things was embodied by Chitwood’s predecessor, Ben Johnson, who retired in Dec. 2016 after 16 years as sheriff.

In 1972, as a young deputy, Johnson fatally shot an unarmed black man as he fled from police custody. A grand jury cleared Johnson, but the episode contributed to a mistrust among African-Americans that lingered throughout his tenure as sheriff.

On his watch, the county spent at least $671,500 settling deputies’ use-of-force and false arrest cases, according to legal records.

Sheriff Chitwood attends Sunday service at Mexican churches and visits taco stands to eat alongside undocumented farm workers. Photo by John Carlos Frey/The Marshall Project

From 2011 to 2013, Johnson’s agency was investigated by the U.S Justice Department after a Latino resident complained that deputies responding to a domestic violence call detained the wrong person because they couldn’t understand Spanish. Volusia County is 12 percent Latino, not including the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 undocumented residents who have migrated mainly from Mexico. Federal officials faulted the sheriff’s office for having no in-house translators and for offering English-only forms and pamphlets to the public.

The way Chitwood sees it, Johnson alienated black and Latino neighborhoods, and the new sheriff now has to repair the damage. Chitwood attends Sunday service at Mexican churches, visits taco stands to eat alongside undocumented farm workers and frequently accuses his predecessor of being indifferent to their concerns.

Johnson fiercely disputes the suggestion of racism or apathy, saying that he was “the sheriff for everybody.”

Sitting next to his wife one afternoon at a restaurant, Johnson parried a barrage of personal attacks from his successor, and finally broke down in tears. “All I want to see is success for him, but don’t hurt people to get it,” he said, wiping his eyes. “He doesn’t have to come in there and destroy what’s been done.” Johnson has returned to politics, and plans to run for a county council seat in 2018.

Policing the undocumented

Where Chitwood departs most conspicuously from the president’s rhetoric is on the subject of immigration. Volusia County prides itself as being the “Fern Capital of the World,” where thousands of acres of farmland produce the leafy green stalks that fill floral bouquets across the nation. On average, fern workers earn about $9 an hour for a job where snake bites and mangled fingers are common. Undocumented Mexicans do most of the work.

Volusia County prides itself as being the “Fern Capital of the World.” Photo by John Carlos Frey/The Marshall Project

Out of self-interest, Volusia has become in recent years a virtual sanctuary for migrants without papers. From 2010 to 2014 the county’s corrections department turned over 197 people to U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, but in 2015 the cooperation tapered off sharply based on advice of Sheriff Johnson’s legal counsel.

Chitwood inherited the policy, and at least verbally, has embraced it with enthusiasm.

“Why are we focused on immigration?” he said. “Who the f*** cares? Our job in law enforcement is to protect victims and witnesses. It doesn’t matter what your immigration status is.”

Chitwood said he had also instructed his deputies to stop what he said was the common practice of pulling over Hispanic-looking drivers and citing them for lacking licenses. It is impossible to tell whether this kind of racial profiling has changed because many deputies — ignoring the department’s written policy — fail to record the ethnicity of drivers they stop.

A lone ranger

Chitwood is a one-man display of what the reform jargon calls “community policing.” He clocks 25 to 35 miles each day riding alone on his bike, and likes to zoom around the predominantly black neighborhoods of Daytona Beach where his celebrity is most pronounced.

Children scream out “Chitwood, Chitwood” as he pedals by. When he roams the streets on foot, adults stop him every few feet and ask to pose for selfies. The recent barrage of national news footage featuring white cops shooting unarmed African-Americans hasn’t diminished Chitwood’s connection to black Floridians. Here on the Westside of Daytona Beach, Chitwood seems to be beloved.

Chitwood likes to show up — unannounced and often in bike clothes — at crime scenes and at the homes of unsuspecting suspects and victims. His hyper hands-on style attracts glowing news stories, but at the same time, deputies and perpetrators’ relatives say he over does the drama. Mary Smith, an 84-year-old Volusia resident, recounted how Chitwood showed up in sweaty biking gear to take command of deputies dealing with a routine domestic dispute involving her son, and the incident escalated into a hostage situation. “He feels that he is the department, and the other deputies are just lackeys for him,” said Smith, who voted for Chitwood. (In Chitwood’s version, he was able to safely end a three-hour stand-off with an armed suspect.)

There was also a Saturday evening in Daytona Beach, when Chitwood tracked down the mother of a 10-year-old boy who had helped steal his $3,500 Cervelo bike. The boy had served as a lookout as his 15-year-old friend cut the bicycle off of Chitwood’s unmarked patrol car while the sheriff was attending a nearby Juneteenth party in a city park. The theft was captured on surveillance video.

Sheriff Chitwood is a one-man display of what the reform jargon calls “community policing.” Photo by John Carlos Frey/The Marshall Project

Chitwood, initially, didn’t want to press charges against the 10-year-old, but the boy’s mother, Deidre Moore, thought otherwise. “As a black parent, you really don’t want to put your child in the system,” she explained. “But I need help.” Her son had already been arrested for stealing a car. She asked Chitwood to get her son into an electronic monitoring program where he would wear an ankle bracelet and work closely with social workers.

Chitwood honored the request, but five weeks later the boy was in juvenile custody and made national headlines after stealing several more cars. “If you stop believing in people, and stop giving people breaks and try to do better for them, you might as well quit,” Chitwood said.

Then Chitwood almost died during a late September morning after a pickup truck hit him as he rode his Cervelo on a waterfront road. He now rides his spare — a $1,100 Cannondale mountain bike. Despite the recent mishaps, he refuses to give up his one-man patrol beat. “I lead from the front, I’m going to show up at scenes, I’m in charge of the army.”

Additional reporting by Manuel Villa