Don Fleming, Flagler County Sheriff Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | July 15, 2016
Don Fleming is a candidate for Flagler County Sheriff. He faces five opponents in the Aug. 30 Republican primary including John Lamb, Jerry O’Gara, Rick Staly, Mark Whisenant, and Chris Yates. The winner of that primary will face the winner of a Democratic primary featuring incumbent Jim Manfre and fellow-Democrat Larry Jones, plus one independent candidate who will also appear on the Nov. 8, general election ballot, Thomas Dougherty. Dougherty is running a self-funded and not very visible campaign.
The Aug. 30 vote is a closed primary: only registered Democrats may vote for the Democratic candidate of their choice, only registered Republicans may vote for the Republican candidate of their choice. Independents and voters registered with minor parties do not get a vote in this particular race until the Nov. 8 general election. Independent voters do get to vote in several other local races that are non-partisan or that will be the equivalent of a general election, including school board, Palm Coast City Council and supervisor of elections.
Of the nine candidates for sheriff, only two, Manfre and Don Fleming, have won elections before. (See Fleming’s 2012 Live Interview here.) The sheriff’s office has been led by one or the other for the past 16 years, starting with Manfre from 2001 to 2004, then Fleming for eight years, then Manfre again starting in 2013. The race has drawn the most candidates for any single local office, and generated the most expensive campaigns, with total fund-raising (and loans from candidates to themselves) exceeding $200,000 between them, as of mid-July.
The sheriff is paid $126,123 a year. The salary is set by the state based on the county’s population, but paid out of local dollars. The winner will serve a four-year term, controlling a current budget of $25 million, 255 full-time employees and 30 part-time employees.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges on the record. The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Undocumented claims are edited out. Answers are also edited for length, redundancy, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- What qualifies you to run?
- Character and temperament
- Policing needs
- Sheriff’s evaluation
- Police shootings
- Black fears
- War on drugs and pot
- Best police agency
- Internal affairs
- Biggest mistake
Place and Date of Birth:New York City, 31 May 1945
Current job: Owner, Cobra Investigations
Party Affiliation: Republican
Net Worth: $326,0000 (See the financial disclosure)
1. What qualifies you to be the sheriff?
With twenty-three years of executive experience within a law enforcement agency, no other candidate can compare. My time-tested leadership carried the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office through difficult times with the Agency emerging stronger and improved after each challenge. Unlike the rest of the field, I will be up to speed and moving the Agency forward on the first day.
What do you say to those of us who think your time has passed–that as “Top Gun” as you might have been (as you Maverickly call yourself in your email handle), the department needs a younger, fitter and energetic leader to lead its troops?
First, “Top Gun” refers to a narcotics class I took back in the 80’s. It has been my email ever since. To quote one of my favorite leaders “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The Agency needs a proven leader, I am that leader.
2. Describe your character and temperament, and what people you’ve worked with—or citizens you’ve interacted with—would say are your most serious personal flaws, in so far as how they affect your job. What do you do to address those flaws?
People I’ve worked with describe me as professional, as do law abiding citizens. Most people describe me as approachable. With 38-odd years in the profession I have learned my limitations. I work hard to balance my desire to help people, against the need to stay focused on the issue at hand. I am not always successful, so some might say time management ability is a bit weak. To address the issue, I make keeping me on point the number one priority of my executive assistant. Of course with 20-20 hindsight, there are things I would do differently. Make a phone call myself, or raise the priority of certain agency policy reviews to prevent an unfortunate gap in service. So some people might say I needed to do something different, or sooner. To address that perceived fault, I surround myself with the best people I can, we develop the best plans we can, and then we all work that plan to completion.
The position of Sheriff carries immense power that should be taken with due consideration. I have spent my life serving my country as well as the communities in which I have lived. Being vigilant in keeping that power in a clear perspective is paramount as Sheriff so that the needs of Flagler County remain in focus. My plan remains the practice of delegating authority and accountability to my staff. This empowers them to act, while removing temptations to abuse the Sheriff’s Agencies powers.
Delegating accountability to your staff?
The position of Sheriff carries immense power that should be taken with due serious and thoughtful consideration. I have spent my life serving my country as well as the communities in which I have lived. Being vigilant in keeping that power in a clear perspective is paramount as Sheriff so that the safety of our Flagler County residents, business owners and visitors must always remain my primary focus. How?
1. Select an under sheriff who has an extensive, proven history that includes street, administrative, community relations, and respect from the men and women in blue and community
2. Delegate authority, responsibility, and accountability to my leadership team while giving the rank and file the tools to confidently do their job
3. Empower every employee to act with the knowledge that I will have their back.
4. Create a community board that includes citizens, business owners, elected officials that meets regularly to address and resolve the issues of the day
This approach removes temptations to abuse the Sheriff’s agency powers. My plan ensures the practice of delegating authority and accountability to my staff. This empowers them to act, while removing temptations to abuse the Sheriff’s Agencies powers.
Crime Prevention: To ensure our plan works, I pledge to listen to our people, be accessible, inspire a positive environment, and most importantly, continually evaluate our results. I will seek to restore specialized units such as the narcotic and community policing units because the deputies are the ones on the front line every day. As such, feedback will unequivocally boost results and help them with crime-fighting techniques. Properly allocating our resources is another excellent way to ensure what is working. We have COMSTAT (short for computer statistics) meetings, internal committees, and meetings, but no follow-through. These “issues” need to be assessed and continually re-evaluated to determine long-term results and separate what is and is not working. I will strive to minimize any “disconnect” between management and staff. I will move us back to the policing strategy of “Broken Windows.” This maxim is that if you go after the lowest offender, it will lead you to the bigger criminals.
Communication: Under my administration I will continuously strive to maintain an open door policy. I will make myself available to not only Sheriff’s Office personnel and government representatives, but citizens as well. I will work diligently to build bridges based on mutual respect and trust. My plan is to build bridges: “Operation Cease” is modeled after the successful “Project Exile” out of Richmond, Va., and Rochester, N.Y. This gathers all the stakeholders, religious leaders, law enforcement, business leaders, community leaders, together monthly to discuss the issues concerning the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and our community. Those discussions improve communication among all the stakeholders on the issues facing our community.
Cost Control: I have always been a fiscal conservative. That in itself requires strict avoidance of waste. In my previous tenure, I demonstrated that you could efficiently run this agency in a very proactive style, while improving safety, training, and services to our community.
5. Give us your geographically precise and documented summary of where you see the county’s and Palm Coast’s greatest law enforcement needs, how those needs compare with the way personnel is currently assigned, and what you would do differently, if anything.
More Boots on the ground: One thing I am going to change is I will return the agency to a standard paramilitary based organizational structure. This will assure that everyone involved knows their responsibilities and who they report to right up the line. I will institute a well defined span of control, which will put the recourses where they are most needed.
Flagler County Population Growth: It has been reported that Flagler County’s population will surge to over 200,000 over the next decade. We need to stay ahead of the changing demographics, as crime evolves so must our crime prevention plans by hiring, training, and retaining law enforcement personnel that meet those evolving threats. Current traffic issues will worsen, and depending on demographics, areas that did not have issues will develop them. We need to be proactive in our traffic studies and requirements forecasts.
By implementing my vision, unmatched experience, and competence, I can once again lead the Sheriff’s Office forward, improving the safety and security of our community for years to come.
How is the current paramilitary based organizational structure–commanders, sergeants, corporals, etc.–any different from a Paramilitary based organizational structure,” other than its difference in titles from the captains and lieutenants you had in place? You have mentioned that 200,000 figure a few times previously. But even going by the usually inflated estimates of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at UF, the very latest estimate doesn’t see Flagler’s population doubling before 2045, almost 30 years from now, though it projects an additional 37,000 people over the next 10 years. Looking back to when you started your first term, the county’s population was almost 37,000 less than it is today, but crime over that span has not changed character distinctly, though it has gone down, relatively. So how do you see crime evolving any differently over the next four years, when the population is expected to increase at a much smaller pace than it did in your first term, and what do you mean by threats?
Regardless of how quickly the population of Flagler County grows, everyday law enforcement is faced with an ever evolving challenge of crimes. All agencies across the country have always had plans in place to address crimes. Today’s world has changed drastically. Now our men and women in uniform are faced with policing in uncharted territory. The question how do we update current policies to address the “new normal” that presents challenges to how we handle home grown and foreign terrorists on our soil? How do police officers interact with our citizens that we are sworn to protect in an environment where they themselves are under attack. Any crime that negatively impacts the citizens of Flagler County’s feelings of safety and security, business owners and visitors is an assault not only personally but on a healthy and growing economy that sustains the quality of life for all.
6. Putting aside ethical issues that have affected the current and previous sheriff—and that have been amply treated in the press and elsewhere—what are three community-related issues the sheriff has handled well, and three that he’s handled poorly.
The current administration has done an excellent job at increasing communications with the public which is probably the only positive community-related issued the current administration has done effectively. However, ensuring Sheriff Manfre’s name is in print every day is the self-serving purpose.
Your ability to analyze the current administration objectively, past polemics, would be, one assumes, key to your ability to effectively address what needs to be addressed, and let be what’s working well. Can you give the whole question a more analytical try that would show us that you are able to deconstruct the good and bad of the agency beyond politics and your antipathy for the man you jokingly called your spouse at a recent forum?
he current administration:
1. Has done an excellent job at increasing communications with the public.
2. Has retained some of the men and women in leadership who were employed by me during my tenure.
3. Continues to implement programs and policy created by me during my tenure – such as the Crime Suppression Team, Neighborhood Watch, Citizens police Academy and the Women’s Self Defense Course.
7. Turnover has been steep. The average years of experience of deputies on the street has fallen, exposing the public to generally younger, possibly more gung-ho but less seasoned deputies. To what do you attribute the turnover, and what specific steps will you take to reduce turn-over and add experience to our streets?
When deputies turn in the guns and badges, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and the citizens of Flagler County lose a valuable asset—institutional knowledge. There is no mechanism in place to harness this knowledge to insure continued growth and success. Under the current administration, the Citizens of Flagler County lost over 300 years of law enforcement experience, not including those who left while on probation, failed to make training standards or retired. There is not a standard measure to quantify the value of institutional knowledge, continuity and history however, it manifests itself in attrition, recruitment, hiring and training costs for which the taxpayers are footing the bill. Employees leave for a variety of reasons. But, the Sheriff’s Office has lost deputies with vast knowledge and skills which will take years to rebuild—and the community is suffering because of this.
The greatest issue plaguing this agency is low morale. Morale is the mental state of a person as it relates to their courage, confidence and willingness to work with others. Morale is the staying power to perform a task without quitting. While cynics may not be concerned about the deputies’ morale, the taxpayers bear the burden as it results in tardiness or increased absenteeism, increased citizen complaints and disciplinary issues. Low morale also increase fatigue, and results in an increase of on-the-job injuries. The men and women of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office need properly selected and trained deputies, adequate equipment, and what is significantly lacking in this current administration, a soundly organized structure of command and supervision.
Morale will improve with the elimination of unfavorable conditions such as fear of losing their jobs and poor leadership. To move the agency forward, past issues will be addressed. Supervisors will be entrusted with the appropriate scope of responsibility. Trust will be built and communications will be both up-chain and down-chain. Deputies will be tasked with taking ownership in their respective zones and building relationships with stakeholders in their assigned areas. My administration will recognize the men and women for their successes instead of exploiting them for political gain. There will be a noticeable fundamental change in approach from day one of a new administration.
8. Since Sheriff Manfre took over, not a single individual has been killed, shot, or shot at by a Flagler County deputy in Flagler County. (One individual shot himself in a stand-off with deputies in November 2013, and ex-Flagler deputy Daniel Ruddell was shot at last November as he attempted to flee from deputies, including Flagler deputies, in St. Johns County). But there were at least four documented instances of armed individuals who were peacefully apprehended after stand-offs or confrontations. That’s in contrast with numerous police shootings in Volusia and St. Johns over the same period, at a time when police have been under greater scrutiny because of such shootings. To what do you attribute the way Flagler deputies have bucked the trend, and what will you do to ensure that this, as opposed to a more violent, norm, continues?
When a person is involved in a stand-off or barricaded him or herself during a law enforcement encounter, that person is in obvious crisis. Having the tools to peacefully de-escalate the situation is essential. Under my administration, my staff worked closely with Stewart Marchman our mental health service provider, to build strong relationships. We mandated deputies to attend Crisis Intervention Training to increase critical awareness of mental health issues. As I understand it, the current administration has continued this. While neighboring counties may have experienced “numerous shootings,” Flagler County does not border Orlando and Jacksonville which obviously have issues which are spreading into neighboring counties.
9. Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his teen-age son, in his National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me” (2015): “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.” Is Coates wrong? Putting what Coates tells his son in the context of a county that was last to desegregate in Florida, and that still has an overwhelmingly white sheriff’s office, tell us how you’d reassure parents of young black men in this community.
It is my understanding that Mr. Coates father was a member and leader of the Black Panthers and grew up in Baltimore where he witnessed violence during his youth in his neighborhood perpetrated by people his own age. This may well have fostered his dark opinion of law enforcement.
Cases of police misconduct do happen and will continue to happen in this country. It’s the response or the prevention that shapes the future of law enforcement as well as the community we serve. It’s not simply the role of law enforcement to cure the ills of society whether it’s framed from the views of this author or framed from the viewpoint of another person’s life experience. As Clarence Page (nationally syndicated columnist) pointed out “We need to talk about police brutality, job discrimination and shrinking educational opportunities. But we also need to talk about black folks killing each other, belittling the value of education and promoting the N-word in hip-hop media.” When anyone groups a race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or choice of a career, we empower ourselves by thinking of “them” as a group. I concede I don’t have a magic wand to end prejudice in the world. But as sheriff, I will continue to reach out to the community both as an individual and collectively as an agency to break down the “us versus them” mentality that certainly exists here and throughout our nation. Cultural diversity training on a regular basis for all officers can help ensure that the entire agency recognizes we come from different backgrounds and influences. As Sheriff, I intend to foster a culture that recognizes how to react in a positive and professional manner when faced with these situations. Uniforms and police cars tend to create barriers to open dialogue in a community.
Besides what I have already spoken to in the Cease Project, I will reduce further those barriers through the Citizens Police Academy, Bike Patrol, and other crime prevention programs, such as Neighborhood Watch, Women’s Self-Defense and a ride-along program.
Lastly, the diversity of the Sheriff’s Office has to be a continuing goal to reflect the community we serve. This can only be accomplished with active recruitment at law Enforcement Academies, neighborhood meetings, an active Law Enforcement Explorer program that attracts youth at an impressionable age and a pay and benefits package that attracts the best candidates to the agency.
No one is asking you to cure the ills of society nor to have a magic wand to end prejudice. That’s not the question. Putting aside what Coates’s father was or was not (he was also, incidentally, a Vietnam veteran, like you), the “dark opinion” of law enforcement is not his alone, but has led to what’s commonly known as “The Talk” from parents to their young black sons, a talk whites don’t feel compelled to have with their sons. So to not get lost in Coates’s genealogy and stay focused on his point, is that “talk” unnecessary?
One cannot discount the influence he (or any person) has in their formative years for shaping their opinions, white or black. “The talk” as it has become known, is a sad truth that cannot be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as unnecessary, white or black. It all comes down to mutual–and I emphasize mutual–respect.
I don’t agree with the narrative that whites (or any other ethnic groups for that matter) do not feel the need to have these discussions about their interactions with law enforcement. Yet sadly I do agree that encounters with law enforcement are shaped by life experience, public perception, and ignorance of the rule of law that governs law enforcement protocol. Bridging the gap is essential by instilling cultural diversity acceptance, training and recognizing how we perceive others in a negative light. A person of color may have already had several experiences in the day, weeks, or months leading up to a simple infraction of the law. That one incident may be the turning point in a negative or positive interaction between the person and police officer. In that instant, the officer must determine if the anger, mistrust or frustration comes from those interactions and not necessarily from this encounter.
Police officers must be trained to understand this ever changing dynamic and be open to look at it from another’s point of view. I do not believe we should treat people equally, but treat people fairly. Each personal interaction is unique and that must be instilled in every officer. It can only come about through the leadership tone from the top of the agency and permeated down through each and every ranking member, deputy and non-sworn employee of the agency. And again I emphasize the need for on-going training that recognizes our differences and listening to each other’s concerns whether actual or perceived.
10. If you were to give a grade to the war on drugs as it’s been conducted since Nixon, what would that grade be, and why? Putting aside what the law is at the moment, do you think casual pot users—the occasional reefer smoker, the person caught with a few joints—should be criminally charged and jailed, as opposed to issued civil citations? What role should officer discretion play in criminally charging casual pot users?
The war on drugs is a failure in terms of the impact on the lives of citizens, police officers, courts and hospitals. As to your question of “putting aside what the law is at the moment” this is the crux of the issue. Police Officers are required to enforce the law as it is written, not as we would hope they would be. If an officer or agency decided to enforce or not enforce any law with which they disagree, it would give too much weight to personal beliefs and or personal prejudice.
We have three branches of government. The legislative branch in the State of Florida is the source of change dictated by the will of the people. The problem with leaving it up to the officer’s discretion lies with the application of discretion and how an agency can create a policy of discretion. Who is charged? Who is not charged? How evenly is the discretion used? What amount in someone’s possession determines “casual pot user” and how does a deputy determine such issues. Definitive guidelines and changes in laws that police officers enforce should be the determining factor.
I foresee an uneven application of “discretion” if left to individual deputies, a Sheriff’s Office or other local law enforcement agency. Until the legislative body of the State of Florida recognizes the importance of addressing this issue, leaving the debate to written answers or forcing law enforcement to decide on a case-by-case basis is fraught with problems.
Do you support Flagler County government’s ordinance, now in the works, that would enable officers to issue civil citations for individuals caught on a first offense with small amounts of pot, as opposed to being arrested and criminally charged?
No, I agree with the majority of Florida Sheriffs that the right way to do this is at the State Level through legislation. But, if the county passes the ordinance I will enforce it.
11. The Flagler County jail’s bed space has now more than doubled, though for the past decade, including the years of somewhat higher crime during the housing boom years, it served the county’s needs. Despite an increasing population, crime is not increasing apace. Diversionary programs are also helping. But jail beds have a way of abhorring emptiness. What will you do to keep beds from getting filled just because they’re there?
Sheriffs and their Deputies do not sentence people to jail nor do they set the amount of bail that would cause a person to remain in jail pending a court appearance. As you know this is the role of the courts.
That said, there are diversionary programs like boot camps and drug court. Also, mental health evaluations that provide alternatives to incarceration to people who are arrested and jailed as a result of behaviors caused by their mental illness have been successful.
In addition School Recourse Officers, Police Athletic Programs, Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch and the Carver Gym Midnight Basketball all provide adult supervision and guidance to build self-confidence and foster teamwork.
I also believe we need to establish a job trades program working in conjunction with business within Flagger County that can employee our young adults while teaching them a trade.
12. In your opinion, and your own places of employment past and present aside, what is the best example of a Police or Sheriff Department in the United States, and why? Please be precise in your choice of agency.
I would say New York City’s Police Department. The NYPD and its 38,000+ sworn Officers incorporate state of the art technology, training, and the highest recruitment standards. The NYPD hire a diverse cadre of personnel from all walks of life. Once train and graduated from their Academy, these Officers are deployed back into their communities. Six million people of wide ranging ethnic and cultural backgrounds are protected by a well integrated Police force. The Police force maintains a strong internal affairs unit that investigates allegations of misconduct.
13. If you have been the subject of one or more Internal Affairs investigation or its equivalent, or a use of force complaint, please tell us in what agency, when, what the circumstances or issues were, and what the disposition was in those cases.
What does “not applicable” mean? Are you saying that in your 38 years in law enforcement, you were never the subject of an IA or a use-of-force investigation?
Yes. I have never been the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, equivalent or use of force complaint.
Accepting, without thought, a club membership to a local facility [the Hammock Beach Resort]. Although I never used any of the facilities amenities, I did frequent the dining room, but paid for all food services rendered. In hindsight, it was a mistake because at the time I did not recognize the negative impact of that decision. While I immediately complied with the findings and penalty set forth by the Florida Ethics Commission, I feel that my misstep placed the FCSO in a negative light and diminished the accomplishments of my eight year tenure as Sheriff. But most importantly, I regret creating a circumstance where the voters of Flagler County would view the entire Agency in a negative light.