(Orlando Sentinel published on February 7, 2017)
By Scott Maxwell
New sheriff in town: Volusia's Chitwood is shaking things up
When police officers are accused of wrongdoing, top officials sometimes go straight into deny-and-defend mode.
Volusia County’s new sheriff, Mike Chitwood, isn’t one of them.
When video surfaced last month that appeared to show a deputy taking money from the wallet of a DUI suspect, Chitwood wasted no time.
He apologized to the public, yanked the deputy off the street and called him a “thieving idiot.”
“That’s what he was,” Chitwood said this week. “Just because he’s wearing a badge doesn’t make it different.”
The concept seems simple: You see wrong. You call it out. You fix it.
Yet too often, politicians and chiefs refuse to do so. They make excuses, shuffle complaints to black-hole internal-affairs divisions or wait for the media or citizen groups to force action.
They seem to think that, if they admit a cop did wrong, people will suspect something more is amiss.
They have it backwards. I’m convinced the public has far more confidence in a department that forcefully responds to problems. It shows they won’t be tolerated.
That’s Chitwood’s thinking. He staunchly defends the majority of his officers as brave, hard-working public servants. “But when a person messes up,” he said, “let’s just just say they messed up.”
(Except he doesn’t say “mess.”)
Chitwood is a second-generation cop who says he has little use for people who defend the indefensible. That includes unions.
“The unions should be there to advocate for salary and benefits. I’ll be right there advocating with them,” he said. “But too often, I find the union rallying around the bad cops.”
Such brash talk is unusual for a top cop. But that’s Chitwood’s style. And his first month on the job has been anything but tame.
After winning a five-man race, he vowed to speed up the office’s deployment of body cameras, commissioned an independent study of his office's recent officer-involved shootings and even ordered a speeding ticket … for himself.
Chitwood said he ordered the ticket — 78 in a 55 mph zone — after the officer originally let him off. After he drove off, Chitwood said knew he had messed up. “There I am, on the Bluetooth, not paying attention, using my lead foot … it isn’t right.”
So he called up the deputy and ordered him to write the $281 citation.
Chitwood said it’s about being transparent and protecting his department’s image — which is why he’s also pushing for the body cameras.
Cameras protect good cops from bogus accusations and boost public confidence. And when he was police chief in Daytona Beach, the office was one of the first in Central Florida to equip all front-line officers.
“At first, I thought my most aggressive cops wouldn’t want it,” he said. “I was wrong. They wanted it. It was the bums who didn’t want it.”
Chitwood said he learned the value of accountability early in his career … after he messed up.
He was a beat cop in Philadelphia when he spotted a bad guy getting away. Chitwood said he sprung from the car, chased down the guy and made an impressive arrest. Unfortunately, he forgot to put his squad car in park … and it rolled down an alley, swiping all kinds of civilian vehicles.
Afterwards, his captain told him he was giving him both a commendation (for the capture) and a demotion (for the car).
Chitwood was furious. He blew up at his captain and then stormed off to his union rep to complain. The rep responded: “Here’s my advice: Grow a pair of pants.” (Except he didn’t say pants.) “Go back and apologize to your captain,” the rep continued. “Take the penalty. We’re not defending you.”
Chitwood said that lesson stuck.
Wearing a badge is an honor, he said. No one should tarnish it.
He will fight for his guys til the end of the day. But he won’t defend wrongdoing.
And to drive that point home, Chitwood said he’s taking the badge from that “thieving idiot” and having it melted down “so that it can never be worn on the chest of an honest, hardworking deputy.”
Administrative offices: West Volusia 386-736-5961 Daytona Beach 386-254-4689 New Smyrna Beach 386-423-3352
Non-emergency dispatch numbers: DeLand 386-943-8276 Daytona Beach 386-239-8276 New Smyrna Beach 386-409-8276 Osteen 407-323-0151