Last Updated: 1:17 p.m.
Flagler County’s crime index in 2018 fell by 20.2 percent, by far the largest year-over-year drop in at least 18 years, and a decline almost three times the 7.4 percent drop in crime across Florida over the same period, according to figures the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released this morning.
Flagler had the second-highest drop in crime in the state for counties with a population of 100,000 or more.
Crime in Flagler declined in almost all major categories–murder, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and car thefts. The exception is rapes, which increased 26 percent, from 23 reported rapes in 2017 to 29 last year. Rapes are usually under-reported.
The local drop in crime reflects numbers across all jurisdictions, but is driven substantially by that of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for unincorporated Flagler, Palm Coast, Beverly Beach and Marineland. In that sheriff’s jurisdiction, crime fell 22 percent. It fell only 4.8 percent in Bunnell, and 11.8 percent in Flagler Beach. Bunnell and Flagler Beach have their own police departments, though the sheriff’s office backs up both. In 2018, it was Flagler Beach, not Bunnell (as had usually been the case previously) that had the highest rate of arrests in the county, thanks to a disproportionate number of drunk driving and drug arrests, though Bunnell still has the highest crime rate: its more than double that of the county at large.
FDLE measures crimes according to standards set by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, on which all these numbers are based. The crime index totals all the crimes reported in a given period, with no distinction between violent crime and non-violent crime. For example, three murders were reported in Flagler in 2018, and 1,021 larcenies were reported. The index will reflect the combination of the two, along with several other categories, for a total of 1,662 reported crimes for the year, down from 2,082 the previous year.
Measured by crime rate, the numbers are even steeper: a 22 percent decline in the county, and a nearly 24 percent decline in the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
For months, Sheriff Rick Staly has been touting the agency’s improved crime figures, crediting a series of measures, starting with the agency’s strategic “Crimemaps” approach, an increase in patrol deputies in Palm Coast and the county, more aggressive domestic violence investigations and arrests (or arrests overall), combined with programs at the jail–an initiative called “Stride“–designed to help inmates reintegrate society and reduce recidivism. The sheriff was planning to ask for yet more deputies from both Flagler government and Palm Coast, though both governments’ budgets may be less accommodating this year, and the figures released today may lend more weight to the governments’ arguments that they could forego additional deputies for now.
Flagler County’s crime drop is not unique in the state: Dixie, Glades, Gulf, Holmes, Liberty, Madison and Union all saw drops exceeding Flagler’s, but all those counties have much smaller populations. Indian River County, with a population more comparable to Flagler’s (151,000), had an 18.4 percent drop, and Martin County (155,000) saw a 22.8 percent drop–the only larger county whose crime drop exceeded Flagler’s last year.
“I attribute it to a motivated workforce, the programs and philosophy since I’ve been sheriff,” Sheriff Rick Staly said, “the district policing, additional staffing, because that allows us to focus on the crime, our Crimemaps meetings and our Strive program. Were trying to reduce recidivism. For those that don’t want to behave, they want to continue their criminal activity, we’re going to continue to focus on them and arrest them, so its kind of a no-nonsense approach to law enforcement.” The sheriff said the agency for all that remains below the level of staffing that neighboring Putnam maintains for its sheriff’s office. “We have vast growth occurring so now is not the time to let off on the growth pedal.”
He said the traffic unit, now in its second year in Palm Coast, helped reduce traffic fatalities 42 percent last year. Fatalities are down more steeply this year, so far.
Matt Doughney, the police chief in Flagler Beach, said Crimemaps meetings are one of the big reasons crime rate is down 12 percent in Flagler Beach, along with technology (he’ll be asking the city commission for the kind of license plate readers the sheriff has in the county). “A lot of it comes down to good old fashioned police work,” Doughney said, “going out there, being visible.” The chief said his officers are following up on traffic stops and the department is disseminating information on social media to urge people not to be victims of crimes of opportunity, simply by locking up their belongings. That has helped. “The community should take great pride” in contributing to the crime drop, Doughney said. The city department has 14 officers but is budgeted for 16. Doughney wants those two vacancies filled.
Staly is asking for six additional deputies from Palm Coast and four additional deputies from the county. He’s also asking for additional support staff. One of the additional deputies in the county would not be a net addition. But that position–a detective assigned to domestic violence investigation–is currently paid for through a grant. The sheriff is applying for a renewal. In case the grant isn’t renewed, he wants the county to pick up the cost. “I don’t want that initiative to go backward, the same thing with the domestic crime analyst,” Staly said, referring to the civilian position that teams up with the detective. He’s also asking for additional help in the evidence division.
And since the Legislature just approved a permanent additional county judge for Flagler, that means–by law–a permanent bailiff assigned to that judge. So a deputy will be pulled off the streets to that assignment, and would have to be replaced. Further, Staly plans to increase by two the number of detectives assigned to the Major Crimes Unit, which would also mean two fewer deputies on the streets that would have to be replaced.
The numbers are very good news for the agency. But they also raise questions: for the past year, the sheriff has been telling the county commission that his agency has been fractured by the evacuation from the Operations Center in Bunnell, and that it’s not operating at peak efficiency, with communication lines hampered and plans for new crime-fighting units, including a cybercrime unit, in limbo. Yet crime is at its lowest level in decades, and falling. How could he explain the contradiction?
“My answer to that,” Staly said, “is that it’s working because I have a very resilient team that is working very hard, and if we had a proper facility and adequate space, imagine what more we could have done: communications, coordination is harder today than it was 14 months ago before we vacated the building.”
Similarly, crime is down almost precipitously, yet arrests are up significantly: there were 400 more arrests in the county in 2018, compared to 2017, including 612 arrests for drug charges. Staly said he gets questions about that seeming contradiction frequently. “It’s a motivated team that’s out there, they’re focused on the offender, and quite frankly if they’re arrested and in the Green Roof Inn,” he said, using his preferred moniker for the Flagler County jail, “they’re not preying on our community, so we’re catching more offenders.” He said various technological improvements, from license-plate readers to a rapid-ID system, have added to the arrest tally, with out-of-county offenders getting caught locally. “My message to the criminals is, you don’t want to get caught, don’t come to Flagler County.”
Staly was concerned about the increase in sex crimes. “In most of those cases they are sex offenses that are relational based, it’s a parent, it’s a step parent, it’s other relationship related, and I continue to be amazed that there is that much deviant sexual behavior by adults on children and young adults,” Staly said. “As soon as I have space, I have a plan to attack that more, but I need room to implement. I have plans to implement a cyber crimes unit. So many, many times people use the internet to set up arrangements and prey on our youths. The problem is, to do that, I have to have a secure, private area, and I don’t have that, so this is another compromise that we’re having to deal with because of the lack of adequate space of the sheriff’s office.”
But if sex crimes are overwhelmingly committed by familial predators–and they are, not just when the victims are children: less than 15 percent of all sexual assaulters report their victim had been a stranger to them, according to a Department of Justice report–why the need for a cybercrime unit? Staly said St. Johns County’s cybercrime unit reports to him that its operations generate a large number of “hits” or “inquiries” from Flagler. “That tells me we have an issue in Flagler County.”
Across Florida, there were 45,154 fewer reported offenses compared to 2017.
“Florida is a stronger, safer state because of the men and women of law enforcement who face danger every day to protect their communities,” said Attorney General Ashley Moody. “I am deeply grateful for all they do to keep the state’s crime rate trending downward, but we must not forget that this 48-year drop in crime comes at a tremendous cost. Last year, Florida lost 11 law enforcement officers in the line of duty. We will never forget their sacrifices, nor the security we feel as a result of their courageous service. God bless the men and women who value our safety above their own.”
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.