The very popular Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly has put Palm Coast and county officials in a difficult position by requesting 25 additional deputies for 2022. It’s the largest ask in either county or city history by far. Crime is at a historic low, by far. It’s doubtful it’s been this low since the days of cows and turpentine. But elected officials in both governments who can only dream of Staly’s stature are too busy pandering to him instead of minding their budgets.
As we just witnessed in the last election, being “pro-police” has become one of those requisite flags candidates wrap around themselves, like calling themselves “pro-children” or “pro-God,” the implication being that anyone who doesn’t follow the goose-step is anti-police, or a heathen. The pro-police rhetoric is intended to shut down debate and get you in line, preventing constructive discussions about a public service like any other.
It’s also an opportunistic counter-reaction to the bogus narrative of “defunding” police. There is no such thing as defunding the police. There never was anything close to it in Florida, certainly not to the extent that affordable housing, public education and mental health are being plundered in this state.The misnomer about defunding police briefly gained steam in some other states (and in cynical opportunism in this one) only because even those who want to shift some dollars from policing to social services–a perfectly valid proposition–let their own clumsy and inaccurate branding get redefined by a right-wing machinery only too happy to score points on making the lefties look like irresponsible pansies putting cities in danger.
But if there is no such thing as defunding the police, there is such a thing as overfunding police. That’s what the request for 25 deputies would do. The sheriff is basing the request on a University of North Florida study. The study is flawed and it’s not independent. The sheriff commissioned it.
The 2020 study is premised on policing ratios asserted as monolithic truths, just because policing ratios have been asserted in the past. The ratios in the UNF study overstate population trends, understates policing in the county as a whole and ignores the advances of policing technology the sheriff himself has made so much of, and that keep making policing so much more efficient: license-plate readers, the real-time crime center, traffic cameras all over Palm Coast, technology-driven weekly strategy meetings, GPS monitoring of suspects, home-based and business-based surveillance and Ring cameras, all of which are playing an outsized role in crime-fighting, to say nothing of computer-assisted dispatching and so on–all elements barely in the field when those ratios were established as presumed standards. Yet the study still sticks to them. It’s like grounding your methodology on pre-internet days and divorcing it from current reality. Look around. Flagler has the fourth-lowest crime rate among counties of 100,000 population or more.
Even if we assume the ratios are valid, they don’t stand up to local scrutiny. The study based its ratio on 2018 staffing of 170 deputies, a ratio “below the staffing levels of other agencies in the South with a similar population size.” That ratio would be 1.9 officers per 1,000 population. Fine. But what kind of population? Old? Young? In between? With what kind of crime index? The study ignores all those differences, even though they’re readily available and make a huge difference in policing. By lumping together all “southern” jurisdictions, the study is comparing apples to oranges–Jacksonville to Flagler.
It doesn’t work that way.
Only 13 percent of Jacksonville’s population is 65 and over. In Flagler, it’s more than double that: 31.2 percent, up from 24 percent 10 years ago. But we know that older people commit far fewer crimes. The most crime-prone demographic is people 18 to 24–a barely-growing cohort in Flagler County among all adult groups. We already have more people 80 years and older (7,867 in 2020) than we do 18-to-24 (7,144). The older group is projected to grow by 126 percent over the next 30 years. The younger group? 39 percent, from an already small base (to a total of 10,000 by 2045).
Those numbers explain in good part why Flagler’s crime rate has been falling. Technology is certainly helping. But the county’s population has also been getting older in rather dramatic proportions. There’s a reason you need more than a dozen school resource officers patrolling our schools and not a single one patrolling our assisted living facilities.
Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, considering the Shetland wool over their eyes, not a single elected official at the county or the city bothered raising those questions, ceding instead to the seeming infallibility of a study with the imprint of a university acronym.
To the study’s credit, the population projections it relied on for its overall ratio analysis is based on the University of Florida’s mid-range projections. But even those mid-range projections have been wildly overstated over the years. In 2006, UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research estimated a midrange projection of 168,000 people in Flagler by 2020. Off by 54,000. Giving it the benefit of the doubt–the housing crash revamped assumptions–by 2011 the bureau might have had a reality check. It did not. Its medium projection for 2020 was 136,900, off by 23,000, and it was still projecting 158,000 people by 2025. Its low projection was closer to the mark.
The sheriff’s UNF study relies on an updated, midrange projection of 124,000 by 2025, which doesn’t seem too unreasonable based on recent permitting trends, though it’s still on the high side. But here’s where the study again goes wrong: when projecting the sheriff’s policing needs for the next few years, it uses the entire county’s population to conclude that the sheriff “was short 31 deputies in 2018.” It then inexplicably jumps from a ratio of 1.9 to a ratio of 2.0 per thousand to say the sheriff would need 78 more deputies by 2025. Why the ratio jump? Who knows.
As County Commissioner Dave Sullivan alluded to in some questioning of the numbers this week, those figures all ignore the police ranks in Bunnell and Flagler Beach. These are negligible. Flagler Beach has 16 uniformed officers. The Bunnell Police Department has 14 uniformed officers. If we’re looking at the county’s population as a whole, as the UNF study does, that’s an additional 30 officers in the mix, bringing policing ranks close to the desired mark–even the 2.0 per thousand standard the study unrealistically projects. When you consider all these factors together, the conclusion that we’re already over-policing Flagler is not at all unreasonable. The suggestion that we need 25 more deputies next year is.
Which makes this next part of the context of the ongoing policing discussion in Palm Coast and the county even more mind boggling.
A sheriff’s representative and Mayor David Alfin last week spoke of the city’s policing budget as an afterthought. What they meant by that is that the sheriff was not at the budgeting table from the start of the process, which is a mistake on Palm Coast’s part. Apparently the county, after its initial meeting with the sheriff’s representative, also did not sustain the back-and-forth discussions. So procedurally maybe the two governments could have done better, although we shouldn’t overplay the importance of behind-the-scenes negotiations: this is the public’s business, after all. Most of it should take place in open meetings.
But any suggestion that this “afterthought” translated to the numbers is disingenuous. The sheriff’s budget in Palm Coast is growing by 30 percent, or $1.2 million, assuming the council approves the budget in its latest form. That’s far the largest increase in proportionate and absolute terms of any city department. It granted six of the 10 requested deputies, after adding five in 2018 and five last year. (I initially and mistakenly reported three. In fact, two were approved to start Jan. 1, two more to start on May 1, and a fifth, paid through the Town Center district, starting last October.) Sixteen deputies in three years is not an afterthought. It’s happening at the expense of other city necessities.
No one is questioning that deputies are busy. But they’re busy doing things that have nothing to do with policing. There are shifts in Flagler where half the deputies’ logs are taken up by Baker Acts and administering Narcan to drug addicts because no one else is out there to take care of those mental health and addiction crises. We’d be better off alleviating deputies’ responsibilities by paying for a serious mental health and addiction safety net than continuing to add counselors dressed as deputies. That’s what we mean by shifting policing dollars.
The sheriff has COPs (community-oriented policing volunteers) to do traffic detail, take care of routine crash reports and keep an eye out in the community. I’m not suggesting that they should be answering Baker Acts and overdoses. But if law enforcement is going to continue to be responsible for these calls–as it shouldn’t be–policing should develop a similar corps of auxiliaries that do addiction and Baker Acts and let deputies do their policing duties. Staly himself has been clamoring for more serious funding of mental health services for years.
That’s not about to happen. This is Florida, after all, where lawmakers are as interested in investing in social services as they are in protecting voting rights. But chanting pro-police slogans? They’re all in. That leaves us with overfunding.
For a time it looked like Palm Coast and the county both were going to take the same approach: give the sheriff some of what he’s asking for, somewhere around the halfway mark, but not all. We don’t need a deputy on every corner. We already have cameras for that. It’s probably what the sheriff thought would happen anyway when he set his request sky high. It’s not for nothing that he’s the sharpest local politician. And there is a fair argument–one I think would have been stronger than the exaggerated ratio route or any claims of think ranks–that you build up your force in flush times so the community is prepared for leaner times ahead. That’s if the county and city were to meet the sheriff halfway.
But then came more pandering, first with Alfin, the Palm Coast mayor, intimating that the city’s budget could be more thoroughly analyzed–let’s hope he doesn’t mean fleeced–to give the sheriff all he wants. Then we had Monday’s pandering session at the County Commission, where at least three commissioners–Donald O’Brien, Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins–actually called for a tax rate decrease and full funding of the sheriff’s request, forcing the county administration to cut over $2 million from county services. I doubt the sheriff expected those twin booster shots back into the stratosphere. This in a year when the same commissioners helped the sheriff break ground on a $23 million Sheriff’s Ops center the commission is paying for, and that will be almost as large as the White House.
And you still think we’re not overfunding police? Our elected should get their eyes checked and try to be less servile to slogans. Let’s dispense with any claims of policing as an afterthought, get back to earth, and make sure we remember that the police is here to serve and protect us, budgets included, not the other way around.