“The men and women who protect our communities each day have not only devoted their lives to public service, but they’ve taken an oath to potentially lose their life to ensure the safety of others,” Sheriff Rick Staly said in front of the courthouse Thursday evening as thunderclouds rolled the plaza. “But today, they do so not only facing hostility from those who reject law and order, but also in the face of a global health pandemic.”
It was the Sheriff’s Office’s annual ceremony for fallen law enforcement officers. There was no in-person memorial last year due to covid. The virtual event could hardly evoke the same emotions of Thursday as the agency, other local police department officers and residents gathered in front of the courthouse to commemorate officers killed in the line of duty.
“2020 was a bad year for law enforcement and 2021 is not starting out very good, so I hope the country will calm down,” Staly said. As a Sheriff who’s served in law enforcement for over 40 years, he thought he‘d, “pretty much seen everything until Covid-19 hit.” The pandemic since February 2020 has grievously added to the number of fallen officers across the country. When those numbers are added in, 2020 was the deadliest year for law enforcement officers in decades. There were 362 deaths across the nation, 18 of them in Florida. In the nation, 45 officers died by gunfire, 19 by car crash, 14 deaths were related to 9/11 illnesses, and 234 officers lost their lives to covid (none in Flagler, where 111 civilians have died of the disease so far).
Hardly five months into 2021 and there have been 125 line-of-duty deaths–23 by gunfire, seven by car crash, and 64 by Covid. Ten officers have died in Florida this year, one of whom Sheriff Staly identified: FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin, who was murdered in February in Sunrise as he was serving a warrant, and whose father, a Flagler County resident, attended the ceremony. Alfin was 36. Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger, 43, was also killed.
As Chief David Williams directed everyone to lift their blue candles in remembrance, Staly, going off his script, asked David Alfin to join him in placing the memorial, a star-shaped wreath of yellow roses, in front of the banner of fallen officer, an emotional moment that caused tears, moving moving Alfin and the blue candlelit crowd.
“To me that was a little highlight of it,” County Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. “To me, that was crucial. It was important, and it made the point.”
For Alfin, it was the first time he was at such a public ceremony since his loss. He’d struggled, deciding whether to go. He described the experience. “I got there early because I’ve been suffering with the thought of attending the event all week,” Alfin said. “It’s kept me up. I perhaps built a monster in my own mind. This was my first public recognition of all the tragedy that has happened, so I got there early and kind of tossed it around in my mind and sat down and was doing well. Then Rick I think caught my eye. He has been an incredible mentor, and it makes perfect sense, because if you think of someone who’s learned to live with this kind of tragedy, there’s no one better than the sheriff. And when he went off script, I felt very comfortable and emotional, knowing that he was reaching out. It makes a big diff.”
“I’m always moved, I cry easily, and I was crying,” County Commissioner Greg Hansen said. “The bagpipes were fantastic and they played off the building, the echo, it was well done.”
Thinking of the ceremony in its broadest terms, Alfin said: “We suffered a great tragedy, and not only me, everyone there, which defies explanation. The hope is that the loss of our loved ones will be a legacy that reminds us every day that we can do better and be better.” He meant those words particularly in the context of the tenor of local politics recently, he said. Alfin, always involved in local civic and political issues (he ran for a Palm Coast City Council seat last year), has remained so, if at times he’s been disheartened by the bitterness he sees. “I’m not happy with the way local government is operating, I’m not happy with the way its projecting itself to the community,” he said, “so when I say we can be better and we can do better I really mean that, and for me personally, I will think about my tragedy every day to set a tone” and live up to those intentions, he said. “I feel very passionate about that.”
Prayers, speeches, and songs honored the memory of the law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty nationwide, and specifically the five Flagler County officers whose portrait images–for lack of the permanent black-granite memorial that bears their names–were reproduced on a large square banner: Sheriff Perry Hall, killed on Aug. 21, 1927; Deputy Gregory Durrance, killed on Aug. 25, 1927, Charles “Chuck” Sease, July 5, 2003, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Darrell Haywood, Oct. 2, 2004, and Sgt. Frank Celico, Sept. 9, 2011.
The wind whispered over the microphone as the family members of Flagler’s fallen officers silently laid red roses on the brick floor at the foot of the improvised memorial. Staly gave warm embraces to family members representing those lost. The touching moments of remembrance were followed by a slideshow, blaring “The Weight of The Badge” by George Strait, projected onto one of the courthouse walls (“He’s seen it all in his fifteen years/Watching our backs, facing our fears/Lord knows it ain’t no easy task/Keeping us safe under the weight of the badge…)
“Each of these stories is a testament to the bravery, patriotism, and valor of America’s law enforcement officers at every level,” Staly said. “They all left grieving loved ones behind – a husband, a wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters – who must carry on without their hero.” The Flagler County Sheriff’s office, “by the grace of God,” has not lost an officer in nearly 10 years. (One judge was in attendance: County Judge Andrea Totten, whose spouse is an active-duty detective.)
This past year has been tense for police officers nationwide. After the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement regenerated and gained broad support, giving people the opportunity to speak out against police violence. Distrust in law enforcement caused an inevitable backlash against the police, placing them in a grim light. In contrast with other parts of the country, Staly said he thinks his “deputies and police officers know that this community in Flagler County, whether you’re in Palm Coast, Bunnel, or Flagler Beach, support its law enforcement”–a statement given empirical credence a few months ago in a Palm Coast survey of residents: the survey found that 96 percent of residents felt safe. Even with some of the public’s visceral reactions to police across the nation, Staly believes that local law enforcement feels the continuing support he speaks of.
“If we had a building, so in about 15 months,” Staly said to chuckles at the end of the ceremony, “we would go inside, but the county commission is working on that, the land has been cleared. So probably next year we’ll be here.” The majority of the sheriff’s administrative offices, including Staly’s, are borrowing space in the courthouse and have been since the agency had to evacuate the old Sheriff’s Operations Center off State Road 100 in June 2018. Numerous employees had developed illnesses usually associated with sick building syndrome. After peripatetic detours, the county administration–landlord to all constitutional offices, including the sheriff–settled on building a new operations center to the south of the Government Services Building Complex. Groundbreaking took place in December. Those grounds are expected to include a permanent memorial area, where, presumably, future ceremonies will be held.
Thursday’s ceremony ended with the Coastal Florida Police and Fire Pipes and Drums band’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” as the crowd dispersed.
–Terra White for FlaglerLive
R.I.P. to everyone we lost. Luckily police officer isn’t in the top 20 most dangerous jobs. Keep up the work! Lots of improvements to be made! Stay safe!
Charlie Ericksen Jr says
A class remembrance of those lost , in law enforcement, while protecting all of us.. This will be followed by a Flagler County Government , sponsored, candlelight ceremony at the same location, (Monday, 4 PM) lead by Chairman Donald O’Brien , for those lost during the pandemic .