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John Carlos Frey
John Carlos Frey
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood is both pro-gun and pro-immigrant and he's been endorsed by both the NRA and the NAACP. Special correspondent John Carlos Frey reports in collaboration with the Marshall Project on why Sheriff Chitwood’s appeal often cuts across traditional political lines.
We move now from Virginia to Florida.
President Donald Trump won the county around Daytona Beach with nearly 55 percent of the vote. The same residents of Volusia County also elected sheriff Mike Chitwood, a brash and uncensored police leader who is a vocal defender of undocumented immigrants.
Special correspondent John Carlos Frey reports on why Sheriff Chitwood's appeal often cuts across traditional political lines.
This story was produced in partnership with The Marshall Project. It's a nonprofit news organization covering U.S. criminal justice.
John Carlos Frey:
Whether he's at his favorite bar late into the night or at church service the next morning, Sheriff Mike Chitwood is a familiar face across Volusia County in Eastern Florida, a sprawling section of the state best known for both its beaches and NASCAR's Daytona 500.
It was also one of the last places in the South to end segregation. Blunt and often profane, Chitwood is a constant presence on local news.
Sheriff Mike Chitwood:
There are some real sick scumbags. You're looking at a bunch of scumbags. Who knows who this scumbag is?
The 54-year-old political independent is both pro-gun and pro-immigrant, and he's been endorsed by the NRA and the NAACP.
We just love that you just say what you're feeling.
And since taking office last year, he's publicly feuded with nearly everyone who has questioned his vision.
Michael J. Chitwood:
If I don't get reelected, I really don't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I am going to do my job and what I was elected to do. What I was elected to do was bring progressive change to the county.
That change has come by deploying a statistical crime tracking strategy popular in many cities, called CompStat. And he's moved away from a focus on weapons training toward a policy of de-escalation.
He's also ordered an independent study of all recent officer-involved shootings, and mandated that his deputies keep their body cameras on when responding to a call.
Everything we do is not about kicking in front doors and dragging people out by the scruff of their neck. Statistically, it's — 80 percent of the crimes are committed by 15 percent to 20 percent of the same people over and over and over again.
That means the general population, the people that you come in contact with every day, are not criminals.
Chitwood's career began as a beat cop in Philadelphia, where he spent several years investigating homicides. He eventually moved to Florida to become the police chief of Daytona Beach, a job he held for more than a decade, before he ran for sheriff.
You're described as bull-headed, as stubborn, as brash, as offensive. It's difficult to manage the way that you're managing. Can't you tone it down a little bit?
If you don't like the fact that we're going to put sanctity of human life first, and we're going to switch from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality, then I think you need to go, because the day of being a warrior and policing your community like you're a warrior, that's the past.
Last August, however, the Trump administration rolled back restrictions on giving military equipment to local police, and President Trump has struck a far different tone on policing.
President Donald Trump:
Please don't be too nice.
Chitwood says, during extreme weather events like hurricanes, Volusia County has utilized surplus military vehicles. And he applauds the president for making more available.
On most days, you will find him riding his bike. We tagged along as he rode through the mostly low-income neighborhood of Spring Hill in the city of DeLand, where he stopped to talk with residents about recent crimes.
We have an idea of what happened, but we need a few more witnesses to get it to where we need to go to make an arrest. We had a homicide here a week ago, right up here at this house.
There was some type of an altercation with a homeless man. When the altercation ended, somebody pulled out a gun and shot the homeless man five times.
You're in a pair of shorts, and you're riding your bike in what people would consider to be a dangerous neighborhood, looking for a killer.
Does that sound kind of strange to you?
It may sound strange to people who don't do this for a living. But for those of us who do it for a living, it's the norm.
It's a philosophy known as community or neighborhood policing, and Chitwood is a firm believer.
So, something like Ferguson, where the police showed up and fired tear gas, and looked like a military or a war zone, that's not appropriate?
Ferguson didn't just happen. Ferguson was 10 years in the making. And it took that one incident. That one incident is what sparked everything, where maybe, had they engaged in a little bit more community involvement, had they been part of the community, as opposed to apart from it, Ferguson might not have happened.
Chitwood also strongly disagrees with the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration. Earlier in the year, amid heightened fears within immigrant communities…
Racial profiling is unacceptable.
… he reached out to the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 undocumented residents in Volusia County, an area that has long been dependent on migrant labor.
The sheriff made it clear that he doesn't want his deputies seen as agents from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
You are in a county that went for Trump. I mean, Trump ran on tough immigration policy, a border wall, going after anybody who doesn't have papers. Are you thumbing your nose at constituents in this county?
If you're a criminal, if there is a warrant out for your arrest, no matter who you are, we're coming to get you. But we're not going to be proactively going out and be immigration officers.
I believe that — just that's not what our job as local state and county and municipal law enforcement officers is.
Chitwood says breaking up families doesn't make sense to him, and he points to the fact that three of his own deputies, Roy, Daniel and Billy Galarza, were raised by undocumented parents near Pierson, Florida.
Their father, Pantaleon Galarza, has worked as a fern picker since coming to the United States from Mexico in 1980.
He came into this country without papers. I know that he's gotten his legal status since then, but you don't have any question or any shame about the fact that he entered in illegally?
No. I'm very proud of my dad. I'm here because of him, because he helped us. The times when I needed to get to school — there were times I didn't have money, I would always call him, hey, I need some gas money. But he was there. He was there for me.
When it comes to patrolling the surrounding community, the Galarza brothers say they simply follow the protocol laid out by their boss.
The majority of this community, the way it's grown, there's a lot of people that don't have papers. But that's not up to me to determine if they should be here or not. Until they commit a crime and I need to act on it, so be it.
And until they do commit a crime, they commit a felony, and they're in prison for some other reason, they will eventually get deported back to Mexico.
Chitwood's office says crime is down by more than 20 percent since he took office.
But critics, like former Volusia County legal adviser John MacConnell, say that Chitwood is padding the books when it comes to certain property crimes like auto theft.
It's logical that he should show a fairly good drop because he's changed the way that — changed the rules of the game. He's changed the way you keep score.
It's a legal padding, though. You know, is it ethically right? Is it morally right? That's the question. If I live in this neighborhood, I want to know if there were 35 or 40 car burglaries, instead of them saying, hey, you had a car burglary the other night. And I say, well, that's not a big deal. Every now and then, you have one of those.
But Chitwood says he's not hiding anything, and that he has another three years before voters will decide if he should keep his job.
Before we left, we met him back at the bar after he finished filming his local news segment dubbed "Scumbag of the Week."
You like that term.
I do. I do.
It adds a little panache to what we're looking for. And I think there's a lot of people in the world that want to say that, but they're like, oh my God, it's not politically correct.
Me, I'm not politically correct. I'm a bull in a china shop. I'll admit that. I have the least political skills of anybody you will ever meet.
While some believe Chitwood will seek higher office one day, he says he has no intention of turning in his badge anytime soon.
I have been here almost a year. We have had two so far.
I'm John Carlos Frey of The Marshall Project, reporting for the PBS NewsHour in Volusia County, Florida.
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Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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