Friday night Flagler County Sheriff was on one of his usual weekly patrols, driving an unmarked, department-issued Ford Explorer and figuring it’d be a busy night with the last weekend of Bike Week, St. Patrick’s Day, and the usual Friday follies.
One of those follies sprang up in his rear-view mirror as he was patrolling south at dusk on I-95, from Palm Coast Parkway to State Road 100: a copper-colored Camaro was weaving in and out of traffic and zoomed past him at an estimated 90 mph. What followed was an almost-chase (“I found out a Ford Explorer is no match for a Camaro,” the sheriff said), an alert to deputies to be on the lookout for the Camaro as it eventually sped south on Seminole Woods Boulevard, the deployment of stop sticks, which didn’t stop the Camaro but did puncture another deputy’s wheels, and a reconsideration, for Staly, of his department’s pursuit policy.
“These gang members, these criminals, they know that law enforcement generally will not chase a stolen car,” Staly said, suspecting that the driver of the Camaro was at the wheel of a stolen car, “so I’m reviewing policies from other agencies to look at, can I relax that, still balancing the safety of my deputies and the safety of my citizens to be able to send a message: don’t come to Flagler County, do your burglaries, steal a car, because we’re going to put you in jail, and we’re going to catch you.”
Just not that Friday evening.
When Staly saw the Camaro speed by, he turned on his emergency lights. Traffic was heavy. He couldn’t weave his way to a clear pursuit of the Camaro. “He must have seen the blue lights come on because all he did was floor it, or she, I didn’t know who the driver was,” the sheriff said. “He was pulling from me like I was sitting still.”
The sheriff was able to follow the Camaro only briefly before he turned off the emergency lights, figuring there was no way to catch up to the driver, who then made an unexpected turn onto State Road 100, then what appeared to be another turn south on Seminole Woods Boulevard. The sheriff alerted other deputies of the Seminole Woods turn. One deputy clocked the Camaro going over 100 on Seminole Woods.
“I directed that if we could stop-stick the vehicle, that I authorized it before we tried to do a traffic stop on him because obviously by his action we felt he was going to try to flee and run, and I believe in being tactically smart,” Saly said. If someone is going to endanger other drivers, he wants deputies to use what tools they have to stop the vehicle “before you activate your lights,” and before a chase.
A deputy threw stop-sticks on U.S. 1 just south of the intersection with Seminole Woods Boulevard. The deputy thinks a stick got at least one of the Camaro’s tires, but the car must have had so-called run-flat tires, which are standard on certain vehicles, and are manufactured in such a way that the car can keep traveling for up to 100 miles despite a puncture.
“I know that we flattened a deputy’s tires,” Staly said, “because he ran over the stop sticks after that.” The reason: “The deputy that threw them out lost his grip on the cord so he couldn’t get them back off the street” in time.
The Camaro is believed to have traveled down to Old Dixie near the White Eagle Lounge and back on to I-95.
“My speculation and that’s all it is, because we were never close enough to get a tag number,” Staly said, “is I would suspect it was a stolen car, because we have a problem with gang members stealing cars, they’re either coming out of Jacksonville or coming out of Volusia with these stolen cars, and they know we won’t chase them because of the danger involved in chasing like that.”
The Flagler County Sheriff’s pursuit policy—or “Vehicle Apprehension,” as it’s called—is strict: “As the goal of the FCSO is the protection of life and property,” it states, “the circumstance under which Deputies may engage in motor vehicle apprehensions is strictly regulated.” (See the full policy below.)
In essence, “Deputies may engage in a vehicle pursuit when there is reasonable belief the suspect committed or attempted to commit a forcible felony which involved the actual or threatened use of deadly force,” the policy states. So speeding, burglaries, theft or even drunk driving don’t rate as reasons for pursuit: “Pursuits are not authorized for misdemeanor offenses, non-forcible felonies, traffic, civil infractions or for suspects who are wanted for a violation of probation warrant (VOP) for any offense.” And pursuits must be approved by a platoon commander (though the sheriff is his own commander).
Did the sheriff break his own policy? He would have had he actually set chase, but,he says, he never actually chased the vehicle. And the same policy lays out the permissible circumstances for stop sticks, which he ordered: Deputies are authorized to deploy the sticks when there is “a reasonable belief that the driver will flee upon the sight of law enforcement or after being directed to stop,” among other circumstances. “In instances where immediate apprehension cannot be affected with reasonable safety, Deputies will try to obtain enough information to make a future arrest without having to engage in a vehicle apprehension.” (Pit maneuvers, where a cop’s vehicle is used to strike another vehicle in such a way as to spin it out of control, is not permissible in any circumstance, nor is Staly interested in making that permissible: it’s too dangerous, and it damages the department’s own vehicles, he says.)
In Friday’s incident as Staly described it, a chase was not feasible, stop sticks were, but in the end proved ineffective. (Staly, incidentally, met Ken Greves, the inventor of stop sticks, when Staly was undersheriff at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which was at one time the largest agency in the nation to use the nascent device. Greves invented them in the mid-1990s in his garage, when he was with the Indiana State Police.)
“Normally we would not use stop sticks on a reckless driver but he was driving so erratic and so dangerous that he was endangering the other drivers,” Staly said, explaining his order to deploy the sticks. Since he was not involved in an actual chase, there was no administrative review of the incident.
But he does intend to review the policy.
A USA Today investigation in 2015 found that “More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in police car chases since 1979, and tens of thousands more were injured as officers repeatedly pursued drivers at high speeds and in hazardous conditions, often for minor infractions.”
Asked how a less-strick policy would ensure that local pursuits don’t increase dangers posed to innocent bystanders, Staly said, “that’s the balance that I have to analyze and see if I can find a balance. Some of this is some common sense stuff, like tactical deployment of the stop sticks, before you turn on the blue lights.”
Staly has been conducting ride-alongs for county commissioners recently. But he was alone Friday, which did prove to be a busy night, with an attempted suicide by firearm on Ocean Shore Boulevard, several vehicle crashes, and Staly’s involvement in a drunk-driving arrest of a woman who “caused a crash and smelled like a brewery,” and had been working on a work permit license because of a previous drunk-driving conviction.