Six of the nine candidates Running for Flagler County Sheriff had their first chance to speak about themselves to a large audience Thursday evening at the Young Republican Club’s forum at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Coast.
Because it was a Republican event, only the Republican candidates were invited to participate— Don Fleming, John Lamb, Jerry O’Gara, Rick Staly, Mark Whisenant and Chris Yates—though the one independent in the race, Thomas Dougherty, was also there, as was Larry Jones, the one Democrat challenging incumbent Jim Manfre. Manfre was not there, though one of his directors, Jim Troiano, was. So were a dozen to 15 sheriff’s deputies—more, when you include those who have been fired or have resigned—among a crowd approaching 300: the largest crowd at a candidate forum held at the Hilton in recent memory, underscoring the interest in the most prominent local race on the August and November ballots.
The questions went from the general to the occasionally specific, with heavy emphasis on the personalities of the candidates, the various controversies that have framed policing discussions for the past two years—police shootings, body cameras, riot control—and a few questions about drugs and pot legalization. There was a lot more abstract chest-thumping than Manfre-bashing.
Manfre himself was invoked less than what might have been expected. Just one question cited him by name, and candidates, aside from some criticism—much of it indirect—about his leadership and ethics issues, focused more on what they intended to do than on Manfre. That was not necessarily good news for the sheriff: he was essentially marginalized by a group of candidates who believe that whoever emerges out of their group will be the winner in November. Ironically, Fleming, too, appeared marginalized. He spoke almost exclusively about what he had done in his eight years, and how he would do it again, as opposed to speaking with a fresher perspective more in sync with current policing and budgetary challenges, as Lamb and Staly were able to do.
“Sometimes I get the feeling that this is Rocky IV between Jim Manfre and Myself,” Fleming said to some laughter. “I probably know him better than his wife knows him.” “Rocky IV,” released in the middle of the Reagan years in 1985, featured the aging Rocky paired up against the Soviets’ robotic Ivan Drago. In the Fleming-Manfre scenario Fleming, who’s 71—14 months older than Sylvester Stallone–sees himself as good-guy Rocky. Nevertheless, the more appropriate comparison might have been with the sixth Rocky installment, when the boxer has been retired for 16 years, which happens to be the number of years Flagler County has contended with either a Fleming or a Manfre in the sheriff’s office. Fleming further showed his—and the rivalry’s—age when he compared the sheriff’s office to the Titanic, and said he wanted to raise it again.
Thursday evening’s other candidates were not all necessarily younger, but they were fresher. And the forum revealed some candidates to be better prepared than others to take on the job—or at least to make the case for them to take on the job, with Lamb, Staly and, to a lesser extent, Yates, appearing the most in tune with policing challenges and actual realities on the ground. (Not surprisingly, all three are either still cops—Lamb in Jacksonville, Yates in Holly Hill—or recently “retired,” as Staly was Manfre’s undersheriff for two years). And while Fleming is banking on his record to resonate with voters yet again, it’s less clear why Whisenant and O’Gara are running, or what they are proposing to do.
Most of the answers were heavy on generalities, sloganeering and the usual promises of integrity and dedication. The candidates did not have sharp differences of opinions or policies, and not one criticized the other, though in a two-hour forum—amiably moderated by Patrick Juliano and broadcast live on WNZF—there inevitably were a few glimmers of precision, a few more easily defined differences, as in matters of drug policy. The more pronounced differences had to do with preparation and demeanor.
Just after a wince-inducing “ice-breaker” question about their favorite doughnuts, each candidate provided an opening sketch of himself.
“I ran the sheriff’s office, I ran the jail, I ran the courts,” Fleming said of his eight years. (He was correct in two of those three statements: courts is not the sheriff’s responsibility. What he meant was he oversaw the corps of bailiffs assigned to the courthouse and to individual judges.) He said he reduced crime in seven of his eight years, established a crime suppression team, a K-9 team, and 42 neighborhood watch programs. “When I left the office I thought my career was over after 37 or 38 years,” Fleming said. “But I look at the agency and the way it is now and I equate that to the sinking of the Titanic. And I look at the men and women of the agency when I see them when they’re riding around, their head is down most of the time.” He said he wants to “raise the Titanic back up again.”
Lamb, 44, spent 23 years at the Duval County Sheriff’s Office after a stint in the Navy, rising to assistant chief and supervising 160 deputies. He still has more than a leg in Duval county: his family is there, and he’s soon to retire from the department there. He spoke of “innovative ideas to fight crime,” projecting himself as on the cutting edge of modern-day policing with community-focused, monthly sheriff’s walks in neighborhoods, advisory community meetings, a ride-along program and a citizen’s academy.
O’Gara, 55, spent much of his career in corrections at Rikers Island, the notoriously brutal and scandal-ridden jail in New York City. O’Gara made no allusions to either characteristic, though he said he made it “exciting” to work there, reducing absenteeism. “As a warden on Rikers Island, I have massive managerial experience enforcing criminal law, overseeing investigations, arrests,” he said. “I was in charge of manning many court facilities, quite a few huge jails on Rikers Island. That was as a warden. I had 1,400 staff assigned to me in my largest command.” (He was using his job title loosely: he wasn’t the warden, but one of many who bore that title.) But he also revealed that he had $64 million in lawsuits against him. “None of them stuck,” he said proudly—never explaining why he was such a ripe target for lawsuits, which must nevertheless be defended at significant cost to taxpayers and in subsequently higher insurance premiums.
Staly, 60, described himself as the most experienced, working in the 4th largest police agency in Florida at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for most of his career, which he described as an arc from a small-town agency to second in command in Orange County. “I lead by example,” he said. “When I served as undersheriff in two different agencies, you would see me out on a Friday night on patrol, I actually made arrests. The jail was shocked that the undersheriff made an arrest. So I lead by example. I’ve done the job.”
Whisenant, 47, is a former sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina and a member of the Coast Guard Reserve who has this in common with Staly: Whisenant, too, tried to run for sheriff against his former boss. Whisenant tried it in 2012 in Charleston County, as a Democrat, though he eventually failed to qualify and ran as a write-in candidate. (Staly ran as a Democrat against former Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary in 2004.) Like Lamb, Whisenant is a new arrival in Flagler. He registered to vote locally only in February 2015, buying a home on Century Lane in Palm Coast that spring, though he says his family owns property in the Hammock, and that he’s been making trips to Flagler since 2001. “We’re going to talk about community, we’re going to talk about accountability and trust, and those are just not a slogan, it’s a love for this community and being totally committed to the community.” His subsequent responses seldom went beyond slogans, however, though despite speaking as one of the evening’s most hard-lined candidates, he sounded like a New Age liberal at the end when he said the sheriff’s office is not a business, “and I’m not going to treat it as a business. We’re going to treat it as a living, breathing thing.”
Yates, a 39-year-old Ormond Beach native—and the youngest of the candidates—is the operations commander at the Holly Hill Police Department. He described Daytona Beach bordering Holly Hill as Donald Trump describes Mexico bordering the United States: as “a constant battle to fight off the unwanted residents coming over that boundary and coming into our community and committing crimes and causing other ruckus.” It was an odd way of contrasting the two cities, Holly Hill itself not quite being the Paris of Volusia County. He acknowledged not having the experience of his fellow-candidates, but that he has “heart” and “dedication.”
The Manfre Factor
When offered the softball of the evening—a question about Manfre’s tenure—the candidates swung for a base or two, but not the fences. “Really the main thing is that he’s embarrassed this county and the citizens living here,” Yates said. “The current sheriff doesn’t listen to advice,” Staly said. “I was the buffer between him and the employees for two years, and at one point it was enough, and I left.” He said “requests from the community” convinced him to run. O’Gara said Manfre did what he did because no policies in place stop him from doing so (an inaccurate statement: Manfre has acknowledged a lack of clear policies when he took over in 2012—and blamed others for his missteps—but he has rewritten policies and procedures to ensure against the sort of missteps he himself committed). Lamb read from the law enforcement code of ethics and said “some people” forget it. He did not want to cast stones, echoing Staly instead: he’d lead by example.
Some of the candidates then went on to say in words almost identical to those used by Manfre and Fleming four years ago—that they’re running to restore trust and integrity to an office lacking both.
Policing Under Siege?
Juliano then opened a line of questioning that touched on related issues of public perception of the police, police shootings, body cameras, the handling of riots, and allusions to the Black Lives Matter movement, though the questions were framed in long, opinion-heavy and not necessarily factual prefaces that assumed cops are under siege, disrespected and increasingly at risk of violence. (Line-of-duty deaths fell 6 percent in 2015, compared to 2014, and this year are on pace to be significantly lower than last year.)
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For example, after a question on body cameras, Juliano posed what until then was the longest but most muddled question of the evening as he prefaced it with statements about the Ferguson riots and the Black Lives Matter movement (which were the result of police killings of unarmed black men). Then, changing track, he asked Whisenant, who had been a cop in South Carolina, how he would have reacted to the church mass-killing of nine black parishioners by Dylann Roof a year ago in Charleston, S.C.—how he would he have managed “that obvious hate crime and maintained relationships to prevent riots” if it had happened locally.
Whisenant—who said he knew the Rev. and State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the shooting–said it’s a matter of working with the churches together, though immediately after speaking of the importance of “being transparent,” he attacked the media (“sometimes the media does not always portray what the total truth is”) without explaining how that applied to a Charleston-type shooting, and criticized people who “protest just to protest.” Staly described riots not as the result of a flashpoint, as often portrayed, but of underlying dissatisfaction, which can be addressed by building relationships beforehand. Lamb echoed the same notion of building bridges with communities—with facts and “valid information.” Yates proposed holding monthly meetings with community members, including pastors, to go over issues in question as a way to restore trust. (Several candidates said “all lives matter,” a coded rebuke to the Black Lives Matter movement, and never once addressed the matter of black lives the movement is concerned with.)
Body Cameras and the “Ferguson Effect”
Regarding body cameras, all candidates said they were in favor, with certain qualifications. Lamb and Fleming described cameras as “a tool,” one that can be an “excellent source of information,” Lamb said, but not a tell-all. O’Gara, who agreed with Lamb, said he had no problem with the cameras, then diverted his answer to a snide quip: “I could probably make a greater case to have cameras on the sheriff himself.” Staly said he’d preferred a different system than the one the agency bought—one that actually enables a more systematic way for the system to function, without necessarily relying on a deputy pressing a button to start it. Whisenant said he’d wear one, and Yates said his department doesn’t yet have them. His position was not entirely clear.
Juliano asked O’Gara about the 1994 riots at Rickers Island, and how O’Gara responded: O’Gara instead spoke about the importance of opening mental health facilities before talking in general terms about how to prevent riots (“when they have great numbers, you can guarantee that they’re going to try something, we’ll be there to make sure they don’t.”) In a related question about the “Ferguson Effect”—a mostly discredited claim that crime has risen as a result of cops being under more scrutiny (Juliano acknowledged that the term has been criticized, but not discredited), O’Gara spoke approvingly of “that one lady who started beating her son, we need more of that around here, [he] was going to the riots, she whacked him a couple of times, she probably saved him a sentence or two. It’s not rocket science, folks, it’s communication.”
Juliano asked other candidates how they would prevent riot situations and the second-guessing of cops.
“The way that you prevent it is by having a sheriff that backs his people,” Staly said, “and will stand there side by side and look in the cases, complaints, fairly, and know that when they’re right, you’re going to back ‘em, when they’ve made a small mistake, you’re not going to kill ‘em. They don’t need to be worried about their job, they need to be out there serving the people and the community, and stopping the suspicious people, legally of course.” To Fleming, it’s a matter of being “proactive” at every turn, as opposed to what he sees as a currently “reactive” agency. Lamb said every month he would take a “sheriff’s walk” in one of the county’s communities, as well as hold monthly community meetings.
Whisenant spoke of having “zone” deputies who get to know their communities, of fostering a committee of “stakeholders” that would keep the pulse of the community, then, using the strongest language of the evening, went on to speak about “haters” in striking terms: “The people that are haters, that don’t have a vested interest in our community, that hate law enforcement, that hate us, this is not a home for them. This is our home. We’re going to take pride in our organization, we’re going to empower the deputies to be leaders, they are leaders, they preserve the Constitution, they preserve our rights to be safe at our homes, and you’re going to feel safe, because we’re going to have the pulse of the community coming together as one. That’s true power.” The Constitution, of course, also protect people who hate the police, so long as they do not act illegally on that hate.
Addressing when force is justifiable, including the shooting of suspects, candidates stressed training and preparedness.
The responses to questions about pot—decriminalization, medical marijuana—produced a mixture of responses from a generation of cops who spent their careers in the thick of the war on drugs. Staly, for example, favored decriminalizing pot possession in small amounts but only as long as deputies still had the discretion to go further. “It’s not the panacea that some people are asking you to believe it is,” he said. Yates agreed, as long as it’s possession of under 20 grams of marijuana—to save money and time, though he’d rather see the money generated from the citations go to treatment facilities. Lamb said he believed in second chances, which are enabled by civil citations.
Fleming was not in support unless it’s a statewide law. Whisenant and O’Gara were categorically opposed to a civil citation program. O’Gara described it as “just another crazy progressive idea.” The breakdown was similar regarding medical marijuana: Whisenant and Fleming were opposed, O’Gara seemed opposed but said oversight was key if it were legalized, and Staly was mostly opposed, preferring to see legalization go through the legislature, where it’s easier to amend a law, than through a constitutional amendment. Yates and Lamb were more open to legalization, within strictures.
When the question turned to addressing the prescription drugs epidemic and the supply of drugs in general, the answers returned to generalities not much different from war-on-drugs tactics dating back to the Nixon administration, which Fleming says have failed—a strong police presence on I-95 and U.S. 1, on the waterways, a presence in the schools, snitches in jails. Yates was more specific, repeating what Fleming had said earlier: that he would re-institute the sheriff’s office’s narcotics unit.
Staly said treatment must be more properly funded, too, to reduce the demand. He would later deliver his sharpest words of the evening on a related issue when asked about inmate safety and health—not against Manfre specifically, but against the badly funded medical services at the county jail. “It’s about three-quarters of a million dollars to do it, and nobody wants to add that to their budget,” he said. “It’s going to be an expensive fix, but it’s time for Flagler County to take the plunge and do it right, because a lawsuit will be critically expensive.” Lamb, who started his career in corrections, said the jail and its medical staff should be accredited. He proposes to find the necessary funds by eliminating waste.
When asked about the pronounced turnover of the past four years at the sheriff’s office, the candidates stressed training, better pay, a better working environment or, for Yates, targeted recruiting.
The next forum will feature all sheriff’s candidates, including Manfre and Larry Jones, his Democratic opponent. It’s hosted by the Coastal Florida Benevolent Police Association on June 22 at the Portuguese-American Cultural Society.