A staffing study Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly commissioned from the University of North Florida earlier this year concluded that the agency was so understaffed that it should hire 78 more deputies by 2025, starting with 31 more in 2020. The agency currently has 170 deputies. That’s assuming the agency were to have a ratio of 2 deputies per 1,000 population.
When the study circulated among county commissioners, who fund the sheriff’s office through the county’s general fund–itself drawn from residents’ property taxes–County Administrator Jerry Cameron was quick to point out to commissioners in a memo that given existing burdens on the county’s budget, “I do not know how it will be possible to put substantive effort to accommodate this manpower study.”
The study was never presented to the commissioners at a meeting, though they all got a copy. In the meantime, two things changed the trajectory of police budgeting this year: the coronavirus pandemic and the revival of Black Lives Matter in light of the police and vigilante murders of unarmed black men, among them Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Ga., in February, George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, and now Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Cities and school boards in many parts of the county are rethinking their police budgets and the presence of officers or deputies on campus.
As it has been with several local demonstrations in solidarity with the movement, it’s been a more measured story in Flagler County. The demonstrations have been peaceful. In Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and Bunnell, sheriff’s deputies and both cities police forces worked with demonstrators and walked and biked alongside them, at no point displaying force or impulses to hem in marchers. The Flagler County School Board last month renewed its contract for 13 deputies spread throughout the district’s schools. Board members grumbled about the $851,000 expense, but never raised an objection to the presence of cops in schools. If anything, one of the board members suggested the board should think about saving money by having “guardians” replace the cops, guardians being the far less trained and less expensive armed civilians enabled on campus by Florida law.
And Staly himself decided to scale back his requests for additional deputies this year, but not scrap it, let alone reduce his forces. He was going to ask for six from the county and six from Palm Coast. He’s no longer going to make a request for additional deputies from the county, but he’s still requesting the six from palm Coast. Last year he made a similar request from the city. It turned him down flat. The city is more receptive this year, Staly said, based on his conversations with Mayor Milissa Holland.
“This issue of defunding the police,” Staly said in an interview, “I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction centered mostly around big cities, big counties, that have not had a good relationship with their community. It’s a sad statement on community policing. They can say they’re doing community policing, but then when everybody is jumping on board saying, we’re going to defend you and move the money elsewhere, then that would tell me that their community policing issue wasn’t working. Ironically, San Diego Police Department is getting a $27 million increase. So there are exceptions to that. I think if you want to see anarchy, cut the police, and defund them like some of these cities are talking about. I think under President Obama the International Association of Chiefs of Police and President Obama had a committee–it’s probably not the right word–they had a big study done on policing, with recommendations. And no one talked about defunding police.”
Obama convened a task force to study 21st century policing in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Obama unveiled the task force’s recommendations in March 2015. Those included making use-of-force policies much clearer than they often are, ensuring that departments provide rigorous use of force training and guidance, prohibiting physical maneuvers that pose reasonable risk to cutting off an individual’s blood or oxygen to the brain, fostering “nonenforcement” interactions with residents, and the like. The recommendations are not foreign to the policing philosophy in Flagler.
“A lot of mayors and local elected officials read and supported the task force’s report, but then there wasn’t enough follow-up, so today I’m urging every mayor in this country to review your use of force policies for members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms,” Obama himself said on June 2 in a Zoom town hall on policing.
“I didn’t agree with everything in it, but I think there are always good things you can glean from those kind of reports, committees and studies,” Staly, who’d read the executive summary, said.
The task force pointed to reforms, but not defunding. “All you have to do is look at when the police have pulled out of low income areas predominantly,” Staly said. “You can look at Baltimore after the Freddy Gray death I think it was, the police basically withdrew from those areas, and who that hurt the most was the good people that were living there. So if you defund it, you do these kind of different things as a reaction to a very, very bad incident, then you’re going to actually hurt the people that need the services the most. What you’ll have move in is Antifa, you’ll have gangs move in, it’ll be almost like a protection racket from the mafia, except it’ll be somebody else. Somebody is going to fill that void in there. I think this has to run its course and we’ll see where it plays out, but it does show, in those big cities that are talking about defunding, I think it shows that they have a real problem with their police department and the way they’re serving.”
Locally, the approach has been more cooperative, less confrontational, focusing on communities “working together with law enforcement for safety,” Staly said, “whether it’s that neighborhood, that street, that business area–everybody is working together for a safer community, and I think that’s one of the reasons we were able to drive crime down like we have in the last three years, because we’re working with the community, we’re not policing the community.”
County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said the approach in Flagler is “about right. It’s not perfect, but I think we’ve got things about right.”
“I’m not saying something bad can’t happen, but there are incidents where stronger force could have been used by the police and it wasn’t. We haven’t been shooting anybody,” Sullivan said.
He said there’s no questions of defunding law enforcement locally, though there are financial challenges. The county’s big financial responsibility ahead, he said, is paying for a new sheriff’s operations center.
“I think that we’ve done a good job on funding the police in our county,” Sullivan said. “The sheriff admitted the other day and I’m very supportive of our sheriff, where we have brought salaries of deputies on par with counties surrounding us. That’s a good thing–the sheriff made that point. I didn’t.”
The sheriff said he’s asking the county to maintain cost of living adjustments and pay increases. With Covid-19 and the county’s responsibility for the new building, he said he didn’t feel he could ask for more this year, but would do so next year.
“OK: here’s the documentation,” Staly said. “You just didn’t want to take my word, that’s mostly City of Palm Coast, so we hired a consultant from the University of North Florida and they did their study, and here’s their study. So now we have to figure out how do we fairly fund it, because the city wants the county to pay for it and the county thinks the city should pay more. That’s what I hear. I’m not the funding source on either one of those, so we have to come together and lay out a plan that everybody will agree to.”
The study is unusually heavy on jargon, even for an academic paper, obscuring many of its points behind clunky verbiage and syntax. The authors seem to have it in for punctuation. But the study authors also reach conclusions that sharply differ from conventional thinking about police. Most notably, they discredit the standard assumption that more police means less crime, only to then later conclude that despite Flagler’s significantly lower (and lowered) crime rate, the sheriff’s office still needs to ramp up its personnel.
“The idea that adding officers will necessarily decrease crime through increased risk of arrest seems logical but is not necessarily the case,” the study authors write, “as offenders may not perceive increased risks of arrest and continue at the same rate of offending or simply migrate away from districts and sectors with an increased officer presence. “In that law enforcement cannot be everywhere within a jurisdiction at all times, intensifying presence at best only slows crime while criminal activity relocates and has shown to only minimally affect a city or county’s overall level of crime. More recent systematic size of force reviews have reaffirmed that crime rates are rarely associated with increases in force size, but generally acknowledge that a minimum number of deputies or officers is necessary as force reduction may lead to increases in crime.”
The authors almost ridicule the staffing-to-crime connection, casting doubt on the often used standard of per-capita policing, such as the International Chief of Police’s recommendation of 1.8 to 2.5 deputies per 1,000 population. “Despite overwhelming evidence,” they write, “researchers keep examining the officer-crime rate correlation to no new results and politicians continue to argue that increasing the size of a force will result in reduced crime.” Many other elements than the sheer number of officers determine crime rates, the report states. They add: “Decades of direct observation research has shown that law enforcement deputies spend more time on activities not related to crime, such as traffic accidents, noise complaints, and service delivery, than on crime-related activities,” the authors write, “and indicate that force size should be determined by a complex set of factors informed by workload, actual service, and agency and community drivers.”
The so-called “workload model” provides an alternative approach, relying on the actual work deputies carry out throughout their shifts, though that approach is more reliant on data that may not always be available.
Nevertheless, the study blends both the per-capita and workload models, with certain limitations on data (the workload analysis was limited to one year’s service, 2018, while the sheriff’s office’s data management system was unable to provide an average time of service for all of that year’s calls for service). But with such caveats, the study authors say staffing recommendations “err on the side of being too conservative.”
The study found the sheriff’s office to have a staffing level of 1.7 full-time deputies per 1,000 residents in Palm Coast, and 1.37 deputies per 1,000 countywide, “falling well below the 2.5 level of staffing for agencies in the South.” But the study notes that on average, agencies such as Flagler’s sheriff’s office, in counties the size of Flagler, on average have 1.9 full-time deputies per 1,000 population, making Flagler’s ratio significantly closer to the actual average than that for the entire South, but still below the regional average. Based on those conclusions, they then laid out the actual number of deputies they think should be hired between 2020 and 2025.
“I think the study speaks for itself,” Staly said. “It doesn’t negate the fact that this has been an understaffed agency for decades.”