How do you celebrate a negative? Flagler County’s low crime rate is tangible. You can graph it, analyze numbers and blare it in headlines. But there’s one achievement the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office (and both city police agencies in the county) should be celebrated for at least as much, considering the contrast with many police agencies beyond Flagler, considering the alternative: we are going into the eighth year in Flagler without a single officer-initiated killing or shooting of a civilian.
At a time when between 900 and 1,000 civilians are shot and killed by police every year in the United States, including an average of about 60 a year in Florida (57 this year), Flagler’s is a singular, even heroic, achievement, and it stands out for several reasons.
Deputies in Flagler haven’t lacked for potentially deadly situations when they’ve come face to face with individuals wielding guns or knives, pointing guns at them, threatening to shoot them or themselves. There’s been close to a dozen situations like that since 2012. Most of the officer-initiated killings across the country are considered justified, and in many of the situations deputies experienced in Flagler, a shooting would have been justified. But it didn’t happen: a combination of control, patience, de-escalation and good sense, and the occasional use of non-lethal weapons like a Taser, worked every time.
A little over a year ago a man in Bunnell greeted deputies at his door in the middle of the night by pointing a gun at them before calming down. Any law enforcement officer who’d shot him would have been justified. “Those deputies used great restraint, and what could have been a very tragic situation, was not,” the sheriff’s Mark Strobridge said at the time. “I’m sleeping between 2 and 4 a.m. and I’m not expecting anybody to show up at my house between 2 and 4 a.m. I think there’s a significant difference in the amount of awareness in the individual’s head.”
Three weeks earlier a man who’d been pulled over on a routine traffic stop in Bunnell decided for whatever inexplicable reason to reach for a gun as he’s stepping out of his car. Any one of a number of deputies could have shot him. They didn’t. Deputy Jonathon Duenas, who’d controlled a confrontation with a knife-wielding man a year before, brought that situation under control, too. (He left the force soon after that to run his own business.)
There was the case of the man at the county courthouse parking lot in 2017, right below the windows to actual courtrooms. He was seeking suicide-by-cop. It was actually a toy gun, but deputies didn’t know that at the time, and for several minutes the situation could have ended tragically. No one fired a shot. Jeffrey Puritis, a sheriff’s deputy and a bailiff at the courthouse, had recognized the man with the gun, kept his cool, spoke to him, and resolved the confrontation peacefully after the man threw the gun out his car window and surrendered. (He was Baker Acted.)
Similarly, a woman at her home in 2015 dared three deputies to shoot her as she pointed a gun at them–a BB gun, though they didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. The now-retired Sgt. Mike Van Buren defused that one. (A year later, the woman killed herself when no one was at home.)
The list goes on. None of those situations draw the sort of headlines or inquiries that officer-initiated shootings do, though they’re just as consequential, if in reverse: in each of these situations, deputies saved a life they could have taken.
The last time that happened in Flagler goes back to December 12, 2012, on Brownstone Lane in Palm Coast, when two deputies shot and killed a man–32-year-old Troy Gordon–after a family member had called 911, possibly to Baker Act him. He’d been walking up and down the street with a machete and a bible, talking to himself, and had swung his machete at deputies who tried to control him in his garage.
That was just before the beginning of Jim Manfre’s tenure as sheriff. No one has been shot since, with three of those years on the watch of Sheriff Rick Staly (who knows what it’s like to be shot: he survived multiple wounds from an assailant early in his career).
Here’s how unusual things are in Flagler. In those seven years, upwards of 6,000 civilians have been shot and killed by police elsewhere, some 400 in Florida. So far this year across the country 897 people have been killed by police. Many more have been shot and survived. Those shot are disproportionately black and Hispanic. No other western country comes remotely close to the carnage of officer-initiated shootings as we do in the United States. Our rate of officer-initiated killings is in league with the more barbaric police and paramilitary forces of African and Central American nations, where violence is endemic, and nations like Iran and Iraq. The Guardian reported a few years ago that there’d been 55 fatal, officer-initiated shootings in England and Wales in the previous 24 years, while there’d been 59 fatal shootings in the first 25 days of 2015 in the United States. Somehow, I don’t think Americans are more criminally minded than other westerners. But they’re three, five, 10, 20 times more likely to be shot by their own police.
We have a problem with officer-initiated shootings in this country–a serious problem of disproportionately trigger-happy law enforcement, even in situations where the shootings are justified: just because a shooting can be justified doesn’t make it absolutely necessary, as Flagler’s deputies have shown in example after example. We may not be surrounded by sheriffs who love to shoot and kill people, as I crudely put it in yesterday’s year-end recap on the radio–and quickly corrected myself. But we are unquestionably surrounded by police jurisdictions where the killings of civilians are at crisis levels, and by a denialism that still absolves too much of that violence as inevitable while making blind cheerleading for law enforcement the only permissible reaction, whatever the price. A corrective is in order–has been in order for years, but remains gagged and bullied off most possibilities of debate by blowhards and demagogues who’d rather spit out bland and chest-thumping slogans like “stand by law enforcement” and look the other way.
I prefer cops who look down the barrel of a gun and manage with supreme courage and control to keep everyone alive. So I’m all cheers for law enforcement agencies like our own that live up to words like “serve and protect,” neither word having less value than the other, and I hope that heroic streak continues. But what a shame that other law enforcement agencies aren’t visiting Flagler, studying those peacefully resolved standoffs and taking pointers from policing you can be proud of. Clearly, they prefer looking the other way.