For 13 years, Larry Jones and the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office were together at the heart of Christmas With a Deputy. Along with the Flagler Beach Rotary’s Project Share and Nadine King’s Christmas Come True, it’s among of the season’s most popular and likely loudest and most visible community-wide effort to put presents in the hands of children from families that can’t afford shopping sprees.
Children culled from lists of the neediest provided by the school district and other organizations are paired up with law enforcement officers, given a cash card, and let loose, in recent years at Target, for a Christmas binge. Every local police agency, the Florida Highway Patrol and even cops from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission participate, though sheriff’s deputies–and three sheriffs themselves since the program started–have always formed the largest ranks.
Jones, who retired from the Sheriff’s Office after 30 years in 2014, started the non-profit on his own in 2007 and watched it grow since, most years seeing fund-raising break records, like the $16,717 it hauled in back in 2018, with the Sheriff’s Office alone raising it through payroll deductions, and Sheriff Staly participating down to the customary mass photo shoot in front of Target with all the children, the law enforcement officers and many parents. Jones had challenged Staly in the race for sheriff in 2016.
That didn’t alter the sheriff’s involvement for five more Christmases. Jones challenged him again last year. Again, the sheriff’s office took part in a covid-altered Christmas With a Deputy, which delivered presents to the doors of 160 children, with sheriff’s deputies from Chief Paul Bovino down to rank and file officers fist-bumping and posing for pictures with kids.
Last week, the Sheriff’s Office’s relationship with Christmas With a Deputy abruptly and surprisingly ended. Part of the rationale is entirely logical and reasonable. Part of it appears less so.
“Frequent and thorough review of all programs that receive monetary and non-monetary support from our agency must be conducted in order to ensure our community’s confidence in the Flagler County Sheriffs Office remains high,” Kayla Hathaway, the sheriff’s in-house attorney, wrote Jones in a Jan. 13 letter. “‘Christmas with a Deputy, Inc.’ singularly references one specific religion, thereby eroding the core mission of community-based policing: fostering partnership.”
With no reference to or recognition of the program’s partnership between Jones and the agency over the years, the letter goes on: “After very careful consideration, the Flagler County Sheriffs Office will no longer provide monetary or non-monetary support to Florida non-profit Christmas With a Deputy, Inc., I must demand all use of ‘Flagler County Sheriffs Office’ ‘Flagler Sheriff’ or any combination of the words ‘Flagler’ ‘Sheriff’ and ‘Deputy’ cease immediately. Further, the address of 1001 Justice Lane, Bunnell, is a building controlled by the Flagler County Sheriffs Office and Christmas With A Deputy, Inc. is not authorized to use it as a registered address.”
The non-profit’s incorporation papers with the Florida Division of Corporations still lists the Justice Lane address for both the organization and for Jones. But the charity’s more relevant filings with the IRS do not, instead listing Jones’s Barkwood Lane address in Palm Coast.
Hathaway wrote Jones that all future agency support that went to Christmas With a Deputy will instead go to a newly formed charity. Sheriff’s spokesperson Brittany Kershaw said it’s called Shop With a Cop.
The concept is the same, and numerous law enforcement agencies have their own Shop With a Cop organization, including several in Florida. While there is only a single “Christmas With a Deputy” organization in the United States, there are at least 49 Shop With a Cop charities, popping up in most states.
Jones was not contacted by anyone at the Sheriff’s Office before receiving the letter, which took him by surprise. He was not invited to be part of Shop With a Cop, or to discuss ways of merging his organization into the Sheriff’s Offices, or asked about changing its name, all of which Jones says he would have considered.
“We haven’t discussed anything,” Jones said. “I was surprised and sorry to be honest with you because the program has been going on for 14 years with no problem, and all of a sudden there’s a problem that I wasn’t made aware of it, but you can be assured the kids of Flagler County won’t suffer from this, we’re going to do all I can to make it happen.”
Staly, who’s been at a state conference, did not return a call and a message asking specifically to follow-up on statements issued by Kershaw after she was asked about Hathaway’s letter. In that statement, Kershaw said the sheriff and his staff had been reviewing all agency involvement with all charities, including the Police Athletic League, whose board was downsized and reorganized. The agency was seeking proper accounting processes.
Asked if there’d been any financial irregularities with Christmas With a Deputy, or any complaints from parents, Kershaw said: “We do not handle the finance side of Christmas with a Deputy. It is privately owned and operated and the FCSO has no control over the donations received or its operations.” That’s not entirely accurate: the Sheriff’s Office had been an active participant in fund-raising by directing payroll deductions to the charity, and proudly playing up that role around Christmas, as it did in a news release last December, announcing the more than $10,000 sheriff’s employees raised through deductions. Staly presented the check to Lou Micelli, a commander at the agency who served on the Christmas With a Deputy board. (Most of the charity’s board members are still sheriff’s employees as of this writing.)
Jones said he knew of no financial irregularities or issues with parents and children.
Kershaw said the name Christmas With a Deputy implied that only sheriff’s deputies are involved, which is of course not the case. Three years ago, Kershaw said in the statement, “The FCSO requested that Christmas with a Deputy be put under Flagler Sheriff’s PAL and offered to name Larry Jones as President Emeritus, but the organizers of Christmas with a Deputy refused. In addition, since Christmas with a Deputy is privately held, they were required to pay about $1,000 annually for insurance naming the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office as an additional insured. This was required by the Sheriff’s Office insurance carrier. That $1,000 paid by them for insurance meant that about eight less children would receive the chance to go holiday shopping with a cop. Taxpayer resources, agency vehicles, fuel, uniforms, etc. have been used to support the program which further implies this is an FCSO program.”
But again, that involvement was voluntary on both sides, with the Sheriffs Office welcoming and playing up its involvement to the point that Jones’s role over the past few years became marginal.
Jones says he has no recollection of being asked to be president emeritus of Christmas With a Deputy, under PAL. He does remember the insurance issue. He says the Sheriff’s Office proposed paying the $1,000, but Jones insisted that Christmas With a Deputy would continue to pay it.
When asked in a follow-up if the Sheriff’s Office approached Jones to change the name of his organization, or to have a role in Shop With a Cop, the response Kershaw sent back, likely with Hathaway ghost-writing it, cut and pasted parts of the response from the earlier statement about the agency offering to name Jones president emeritus.
Hathaway’s letter and Kershaw’s statement presumably refers to Christmas as a particularly Christian holiday, though it is, in fact–and not just because of the American commercialization of culture in every time zone–celebrated in most cultures and recognized as a public holiday in the majority of countries, including many with predominantly Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religions. The ideologically-minded “war on Christmas” in the United States, a fabrication of the religious right, in recent years made the false claim that “Christmas” was under assault as a Christian holiday. More diversity-minded businesses, organizations and public school districts played down the focus on the word Christmas to be more inclusive of other cultures and holiday celebrations. Part of the Sheriff’s Office’s justification draws from that trend.
To Jones, the name of the organization had nothing to do with religious implications. “We service a lot of kids in Flagler County and never asked any of the kids nor their parents what religion they are. They can be Buddhist, Baptist, Pentecostal, we don’t know. We’re here to serve the community.” Not a single one of the hundreds of images on Christmas With a Deputy’s Facebook page projects anything like a religious message other than the usual iconography of Christmas–Christmas trees, Santa, gifts. Ironically, the sheriff himself has taken pride in what his own agency’s news releases describe as “faith-based recovery programs” that are part of his Stride initiatives at the county jail, intended to help inmates reintegrate society.
Asked if, given the popularity of the program–and Staly’s own popularity–he was not concerned about appearing vindictive or petty toward a long-time veteran of the force who happened to have run against him twice, Kershaw replied: “Sheriff Staly is concerned with providing the best service to this community. We are always evaluating best practices and programs we provide. In 2016 Larry Jones ran against Sheriff Staly and FCSO continued to support Christmas with a Deputy for the last four years. After a review of all charities supported by the FCSO, it was determined that we must be more inclusive to the community we serve as indicated in our prior response.”
Jones would not speculate about the sheriff’s decision. “I’m not here to get politics involved, this is all about the community, helping out where it’s needed,” he said. Asked if he intended to continue his organization, he said: “Absolutely, I’m here to serve the community,” and wished the Sheriff’s Office’s Shop With a Cop well. “The more the better, that’s what I’m all about, that’s great, if they can get out and help 100 kids and I have 100 kids, that’s great.”
Christmas With a Deputy had plenty of visibility, especially when it organized its customary convoy of law enforcement patrol cars, each with one or more child aboard, sirens blaring and lights flashing, all converging on the Target parking lot. Between Facebook postings, releases and media attention, the program has had an outsized presence in the community. But for perspective’s sake, it’s worth noting that a program like the Rotary’s Project Share typically serves 1,200 to 1,300 children each Christmas, also drawing exclusively on community fund-raising.