The numbers are indisputable, if also aided by the year of lockdowns: Flagler County’s crime rate in 2020 fell for the 11th straight year, though it’s never fallen as sharply as it has in the last three, when it fell by half since 2017. The crime rate in 2020 in the county was a third what it was in 2007, when it hit a modern-day peak.
In 2020, Flagler had the fourth-lowest crime rate in the state for counties of 100,000 or more people, bested only by St. Johns, Santa Rosa and Sumter counties. Six other counties had lower crime rates–Union, Jackson, Jefferson, Liberty, Glades and Gadsden–but the average population of those six counties is 18,000.
Compared to where it is today, the crime rate was high when Don Fleming took over as sheriff in 2005, it rose for three years, then began a steady, slow decline, flattening out somewhat during Jim Manfre’s latter four years, before taking a dive in Rick Staly’s first four years. He was reelected last fall with 70 percent of the vote, by far the highest margin for any sheriff in at least a quarter century, and largely on the strength of the falling crime rate. The rate reflects crime numbers across the county, including Flagler Beach and Bunnell, which have their own police departments. Palm Coast contracts with the sheriff for additional policing in Palm Coast. The sheriff patrols Beverly Beach and Marineland as part of its county responsibilities.
“The numbers show that countywide law enforcement is working together, working hard, and working smart,” Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney said.
“I’m very proud of our team,” Staly said. “We have a motivated team that really engages and delivers for the community, and it’s a combination of getting the community engaged with the Sheriff’s Office and the technology we have implemented, along with the Real-Time Crime Center. I don’t think you can say it’s one particular thing we’ve done. I think it’s a combination of putting all these things together and it’s showing the positive results.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement issued the annual report of crime in Florida on Monday, showing crime down for the 50th straight year–it has fallen every year since 1971, when Richard Nixon was at the end of his first term and Reubin Askew was at the beginning of his two terms (which, unlike Nixon, he completed). Crime statewide dropped 14.1 percent, so Flagler was able to beat the state’s decline by a few percentage points. But violent crime in the state rose by 2.3 percent because of increases in murders and aggravated assaults even as other violent crimes–rape, robbery–and non-violent crimes were down.
Flagler saw no murders in 2020 (there were three the year before), though one man, Jevante Hamilton, was indicted on first-degree murder more than a year after the fact in the death by heroin overdose of Timothy J. Davidson. There were 32 reported rapes in the county, down from 38 and 10 robberies. But aggravated assaults saw a 35 percent increase–from 156 to 210, or more than one every other day.
The Sheriff’s Office analyzed the numbers to understand where and why that was happening. “Those increases were in two areas,” Staly said, “domestic violence, so instead of using a fist they were grabbing weapons, which turns it into an aggravated domestic assault. They’re grabbing the kitchen knife or gun and threatening the significant other with it. The other place we analyzed it is road rage.” Staly, referring to reports he gets from sheriff’s and other law enforcement associations and organizations from around the country, said he sees the same trend reported everywhere.
“Roads rage, I think people are just angrier, and I think they’re angrier across the country,” he said. “We’re a divided nation, it’s pretty obvious, then we went through the pandemic.” Layoffs, lost hours, frustrations built up. “There’s just a lot of anger and we’re going to continue to see the repercussions of covid and the pandemic for a long time to come yet.”
The local spikes in any crime category provoke a targeted response. The Sheriff’s Office has been focusing messaging on social media about domestic violence and road rage, and a few months ago expanded its traffic patrols. Countering domestic violence had been–and continues to be–a sheriff’s priority. Numbers had been trending down for three years. They have gone back up last year. “Arrests for Domestic violence have increased, but we’re also seeing more anger that way in these types of calls, and we’re seeing a lot of violations of domestic violence inunctions, which had all been trending down,” the sheriff said. “I’m certainly not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I truly believe that we’re seeing the anger as a result of the pandemic and what this country has been through.”
Burglaries, on the other hand, are down nearly by half, which may be an indication of the more frequent presence of people in their homes. Larcenies were also down significantly, as were motor vehicle thefts, at least those in the county. The Sheriff’s Office’s increasing use of license-plate readers led to numerous arrests for stolen vehicles, but many of those thefts originate in neighboring counties. Flagler Beach is preparing to install its own set of license plate readers, which will be networked with the sheriff’s. Any time there’s a detection of a vehicle in one area of the county, all three local law enforcement agencies will know about it, though Doughney said the readers are not just about stolen cars. He said they are also used in silver or amber alerts, when people with dementia or children go missing.
While the sheriff’s office still accounts for the larger majority of policing in Flagler–2,169 arrests out of the total of 2,539 last year, 85 percent–the highest arrest rate continues to be in Bunnell, a city of some 3,500. There were 154 arrests there in 2020, yielding an arrest rate of 4,391 per 100,000, more than twice that of the county and almost twice that of Miami-Dade. Flagler Beach had 119 arrests. The Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had 97 arrests between them, all of them adults. Juvenile arrests overall were also significantly down in the county, to 103, from 155 the year before, a reflection of the abbreviated school year and the greater level of parental supervision of children necessitated by the pandemic. The complete state, county and city data reports are available here.
Flagler County Crime and Crime Rates, 2000-2020
|Year (Sheriff)||Pop.*||Total Crime Index||Index % |
Note: The crime figures listed in the table represent the incidence of reported crime in the entire county, including Bunnell and Flagler Beach, not just crime reported to or by the Flagler County Sheriff's Office. Note, too, that reported crime is always lower than actual crime levels, as all crimes are not reported.
(*)The population figure is based on the total provided by FDLE, which differs from that of the U.S. Census Bureau. The latter places the county's total population at 105,392.