Every year around this time the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office gathers its ranks and members of the community to commemorate the deputies and law enforcement officers who have given their lives in the line of duty. On Monday, it did so in the shadow of a catacomb–the former Sheriff’s Operations Center, evacuated last June, in effect all but condemned last month, its future fate unknown: memories aside, it can’t even be used as a repository because of health concerns.
The doors to the operations center were kept locked Monday evening, and at times, as the crowd held its bluish candles aloft, it looked as if the building too was being memorialized. The brief prayers and a speech refocused attention away from the setting’s ironies and onto Flagler’s five fallen officers through the years, along with Florida’s and the nation’s.
There were 163 such deaths last year across the nation (11 in Florida), 52 of them by gunfire, 26 by car crash, 27 related to 9/11 illnesses, and 18 by heart attack, considered line of duty deaths due to the stresses of the job.
Until recently the names of officers who died of heart attacks were not chiseled into the granite of the Florida Sheriff’s Association Memorial Wall in Tallahassee. That changed recently, resulting in the addition of the name of Homer Williams Brooks, Flagler County’s ninth sheriff, earlier this month. He died of a heart attack while leaving his office in 1965.
Brooks’s is one of the five Flagler County officers commemorated every year, along with Sheriff Perry Hall (1927), deputy George Durrance (1927), deputy Chuck Sease (2003) and deputy Frankie Celico (2011).
“Always remember the ultimate price they paid,” sheriff’s chaplain Ed Reistetter said in Monday evening’s dying light. “May their memories stand forever as those who died brave and lived life well, so be with us tonight as we memorialize those who have lost their lives serving Flagler County.”
Monday’s memorial began in front of the county courthouse, where scores gathered at dusk, mingled, claimed small electronic candles with the semblance of a blue flame when lit, and before 8 p.m., with Sheriff Rick Staly and his wife Debbie at the head of the procession, walked the half mile to the grounds of the former Sheriff’s Operations Center. Two-thirds of the way there, the sheriff took the reins of a horse and continued the walk, turning into the grounds and the sounds of Coastal Florida Police and Fire Pipes and Drums. (The group includes a new member: retired Circuit Judge J. David Walsh, who’d actually put in a day’s work as a judge at the courthouse before the evening gig.) The sounds briefly spooked a posse of horses that had lined up for the ceremony, their riders having trouble keeping them in place.
“We’re all blessed to live in the sunshine State. Men and women throughout Florida put on a uniform every day to keep our piece of paradise a safe place to live, visit, and work. The tragic loss of 11 Florida officers in 2018 serves as a reminder of the price that is paid by some to keep the peace for many. These officers lived and died for something greater than themselves, however, as it is often said, it is not how they died that made them heroes.” Those last words are chiseled on the fallen officer memorial positioned in front of the operations center.
Staly said the best way to honor the fallen is with actions rather than words, helping fellow-citizens in time of need, teaching children that law enforcement is “a noble profession deserving of respect,” made up of “human beings with families, hopes and dreams.” He described the difficult state of contemporary law enforcement, as “law enforcement officers are expected to have life-saving skills to deal with medical emergencies like overdoses. Officers are expected to have the soft-spoken skills of a diplomat to defuse an escalating situation, while having the physical skills to subdue any threat no matter the size. In addition today’s officers are now tasked with eliminating threats before they even occur. While doing all of these things, they’re also expected to never make a mistake, never miss a beat, and never have a bad day.”
The sheriff and members of each fallen’s family–those who were here–then posed roses at the foot of the memorial as the five names and their “end of watch” dates were spoken, among them Brooks. Brooks served in the United States Navy during World War II before beginning his career in law enforcement as a deputy in Flagler. He served as Bunnell’s police chief before his election as sheriff in 1957, and two re-elections. He died shortly after that second re-election.
The irony of holding the ceremony outside the former operations center was not left entirely unspoken, the center itself almost qualifying, if not quite as a victim, at least as something fallen in the line of duty since it was evacuated last June. The building has a mold problem, its extent not yet determined though that diagnosis was rendered moot last month when the county commission elected to build a new operations center in Palm Coast, leaving the sheriff nomadic for two more years.
“Normally we’d invite you inside to see the museum and have refreshments,” Staly told the crowd, “but as you know, we’re temporarily homeless.”
Unusually and with the exception of Bunnell Police Chief Tom Foster, not a single Bunnell elected official attended the ceremony, even though elected or city officials from the county, from Palm Coast and from Flagler Beach did: Bunnell’s commissioners have been at odds with the sheriff and the county over the county’s plan to move the sheriff’s principal operations to Palm Coast. Vice Mayor Hohn Rogers said the absence was not intentional: the Bunnell Commission was still meeting at the time, and he and Mayor Catherine Robinson went to the old operations center grounds as soon as they were able.