Monday afternoon the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office issued a release that read like an echo from a campaign ad. The headline in the release was “One Team, One Mission,” followed by half a dozen paragraphs summarizing recent meetings the sheriff held with his staff and the plans he laid out, along with a cheering quote from a deputy about the new administration: “For the first time in as long as I can remember I am excited about the future of the agency,” Scott Vedder, a 13-year veteran, was quoted as saying. “I am looking forward to getting back to a true law enforcement family.”
The release was an unusual and implicit swipe at the previous administration of ex-Sheriff Jim Manfre, implying that the agency was fractured and deputies weary of the job. Beyond the usually overheated chatter and challengers’ criticism on the campaign trail, turnover amounting to around a quarter of the agency’s employees and Manfre’s loss in the primary to a retired deputy with little administrative experience lent at least some credence to the image of an agency beset by low morale.
But three deputies with varying years of service and experience at the agency, contacted independently essentially to verify Vedder’s claim and to weigh in on the changes under Staly, either confirmed it or went beyond it to say the agency is moving in a better direction, mostly because they feel the new sheriff and supervisors are giving them more room to do their job, and because they feel there’s a new sense of esprit de corps at the agency–a sense of enthusiasm for a common purpose.
“I agree with what he’s saying, there’s definitely a better energy, more energy at the Sheriff’s Office,” one of the deputies said. (All three were given the option of remaining anonymous. Two of them chose to do so. The third, a union representative, spoke for attribution.) “It’s no longer a drudgery for people to come to do their work. People can do their work without any fear of repercussions.” Asked to specify what sort of repercussions the deputy was referring to, the answer was: “It’s kind of taking the politics out of it.”
Staly, the deputy said, does not appear to be putting on a show. “You can see why he was elected sheriff, the guy is good at what he does, very knowledgeable, not because he’s a rah-rah motivational speaker. He comes across sincere and knowledgeable about what he’s talking about. So I would say yes, everyone is moving toward a common goal.” That’s the case, the deputy said, without shirking accountability: “There’s a clear message, if you’re not going to work, you’re not going to be happy here, you’re going to have to work and be accountable.”
Before getting sworn in and after the election, Staly during his transition held individual meetings with every member of his department. Last week, he met with employees again in larger groups to explain how he intended to run the agency, and to “build an atmosphere where people feel empowered to make decisions and to eliminate internal division by developing a spirit of cooperation,” according to the release.
Changes that have more to do with attitude and esprit de corps than fundamentals.
The release lacked specifics, but another deputy who spoke on condition of anonymity paraphrased the part of Staly’s message that seems to be resounding most: “You go to work, and you work hard, I will support you. You make a mistake I will support you. You go out there and you commit a crime or do something illegal or unethical and I have no use for you.”
On the campaign trail and in his speech the day of his swearing in, Staly had promised deputies that, in his words, “I have your back.” But deputies say the pledge is not without accountability, nor is it a blank check.
The second deputy, who spoke of being in the profession not for the brawn of it but for service, added, “I am nonetheless a career police officer and I feel the need to be supported by my boss. This feels legitimate. Not everyone is happy,” the deputy continued. “There are some changes coming that not everyone agrees with, so there’s some uncertainty there. I’m not sure what I think about that aspect of it right now. Overall I feel like I’m in a much better place than I was six months ago.” Of the group meeting the deputy attended, the deputy said “it was very refreshing,” and “the feeling there was pretty much unanimous.”
The release Monday provided a general outline of the plans Staly discussed with troops, but with few specifics. Most of the points outlined amounted more to cosmetic and organizational rather than fundamental changes at the agency, so how or to what extent the public sees deputies will not change, although the sheriff is putting renewed emphasis on community policing—which has been in place, but Staly is calling its new application “guardianship” community policing.
The concept concrete application is still hazy, but Mark Strobridge, the sheriff’s chief spokesman, described it as “a reminder that we all have a vested interest in the community together, it’s not the police trying to develop a relationship, but the police as stakeholders.” The effect should be more than a cop building relationships with the people on his or her beat and turning residents or businesses into “partners” in the community policing.
The sheriff also announced a new initiative that would include a “workout with the sheriff” (an Observer story on cops’ fitness just after Staly’s election was widely read), special attention to centennial celebrations of the agency and the county. Staly proposed designing a commemorative firearm for the occasion. If employees favor the idea—and it appears they do—the cost would have to be borne by employees entirely.
There’ll be a few changes in how agency employees are recognized: there will no longer be quarterly awards that pick a winner from detention, patrol or civilian divisions, but one overall employee of the month, regardless of the division, and one employee of the year. Staly also intends to move a Wall of Honor from the rear, non-public area of the operations center on Moody Boulevard to the front lobby of the building. The wall will display images and stories of deputies who have died or been killed in the line of duty. The stories are still being researched, Strobridge said, but the wall should be ready for display by May, when the department holds its annual ceremony in memory of the fallen.
Of particular interest to deputies through the week’s meetings was Staly’s emphasis on allowing deputies or employees to attend funerals of fallen law enforcement officers elsewhere in the state, or marking those occasions, though Strobridge said that does not amount to an allowance on taxpayers’ dime.
“If a funeral fell on their normal workday and there was adequate staffing for them to attend a funeral within that period of time, then they may be granted permission, that’s going to be on a case by case basis,” Strobridge said. Otherwise, employees would be attending the funerals on their own time and at their own expense.
“One thing for example that always bothered people was that mourning bands were not always authorized immediately after the death of a Florida LEO,” one deputy said. “Sheriff Staly seems to understand that we want to wear the bands immediately.”
Overall, Strobridge said, the meetings were for Staly “to talk to all the employees involved and say ‘hey, let’s create a roadmap a, let’s talk about your role and my role and talk about this team to unify this organization.’”
Jon Dopp, a corporal at the agency and the deputies’ union chief there (he is the vice president of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association), guardedly echoed other deputies’ assessment of the Staly meetings.
“The overall attitude right now is cautiously optimistic,” he said, speaking as a union representative. “Morale seems to be on a clear upswing and there are a lot of good ideas coming from the administration. There is still some question as to whether or not some of these ideas will actually come to fruition, but most of the guys seem to be very supportive of the overall vision for the agency.”
Dopp agreed that the changes proposed are not fundamental but rather go to “the visibility of the sheriff and his command staff. They seem to be more engaged in day to day operations and are overall more approachable than we have been used to.”
That’s in contrast with the early weeks and months of the previous administration—when Stalky was undersheriff–when the department reeled from a reorganization that included firings, demotions and transfers.
“I also think there is a significant and noticeable push to restore faith in our agency and profession,” Dopp continued, alluding to the harsher light police agencies have been under for the past two years in the wake of a series of controversial incidents and debates over police shootings. Local police agencies, including the sheriff’s office, have been spared any such controversies, but law enforcement officers had been feeling on the defensive. “There is a concerted effort to make each deputy proud to serve again,” Dopp said. “And I have to point out that as deputies become proud again and morale increases, it will affect the quality of service and type of interaction the public has with deputies.”