Driving Change: A tale of two sheriffs

Sheriffs Mike Chitwood, Jerry Demings speak with Matt Austin

By Matt Austin - Anchor, Donovan Myrie - Investigative/Special Projects Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - Sheriff Mike Chitwood and Sheriff Jerry Demings know their stuff. They know Florida; they know their people, they know their laws and they know their roads.

Chitwood, newly elected to the position by Volusia County voters in 2016, started as a beat cop and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Philadelphia Police Department over a span of 18 years. He left Philly for Oklahoma and then moved on to Florida. For 10 years, Chitwood was the police chief of Daytona Beach.

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Demings has been a Florida cop all of his life. He started his career with the Orlando Police Department in 1981; by 1998 he had become the department’s first African-American police chief. He retired from the department four years later, took a position with Orange County as director of public safety, and then ran for county sheriff. That was in 2008; he’s been re-elected by Orange County voters for two subsequent terms.

Chitwood and Demings have over 65 years of law enforcement experience between them. They know what works and they’re trying to fix what doesn’t. For Chitwood, he’s concentrating on providing his deputies with the tools and training for more modern policing. Demings biggest hurdle as of late is targeting specific pockets of violent crime in the county.

The two lawmen also feel they have a good handle on identifying problems and the steps they need to take to institute solutions. One thing they can’t figure out, however: why Florida lawmakers continue to hold back on improving the state’s texting while driving law, endangering Floridians and anyone else who visits the state.

“Distracted driving. It’s costing people their lives; it’s costing people their quality of life,” Chitwood told News 6.

“We’ve got to do something to make our roads safer for everyone," Demings said.

The biggest frustration with texting while driving for all Florida law enforcement officers is its categorization of a secondary offense: Police can only pull over a motorist if the officer witnesses another traffic violation and the act of texting while driving.

“It’s almost impossible to enforce as a secondary enforcement act,” Chitwood said. “The ultimate goal here is to keep the motoring public and the pedestrian public as safe as humanly possible And if there is a device out there such as cell phones that’s contributing to severe injuries and death, why aren’t we doing something to cut it off? We need the laws and the tools to do that.”

“It seems a bit odd that our legislators would not be encouraged to give us tools to make our roadways safer by using law enforcement,” Demings said. “We know that because of law enforcement we’re able to change and modify human behavior regardless of if it’s driving or in other means. One of the primary reasons people obey the law is out of fear of law enforcement. And we’re not trying to create a situation here where we want people to fear law enforcement necessarily, but we are trying to change their behavior.”

Nationwide, that behavior is getting worse and worse. Last week, the National Safety Council released estimates for vehicle deaths across the United States for 2016. The news was not good: for the first time since 2007, more than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents. That was a 6 percent rise from the year before (40,200 versus 37,757) and a 14 percent rise between 2014 and 2016 (40,200 versus 35,398).

Over the past two years, Florida hasn’t fared much better: From 2015 to 2016, traffic fatalities in the state were up 3 percent (3,037 versus 2,955) but the big jump was from 2014 to 2016, when fatality rates in the state rose by 21 percent (3,037 versus 2,501).

Was all of this due to texting while driving? Hardly. In its report, the NSC noted that seat belt laws, drunken driving and higher speeds were all contributing factors. But lumped in with the trifecta of “seat belts, speed and spirits” is also distracted driving.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported fatalities related to distracted driving were up 8.8 percent, from 3,197 to 3,477. And the problem could be even worse than any of us really know. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health (one of the first of its kind to study distracted driving) stated there is a lot of “underreporting” of the problem since officers have to typically rely on a driver’s admission of texting as the cause of the accident.

If you don’t think primary enforcement versus secondary or non-enforcement of driving and texting works, consider this: The NSC found that only 12 states reported a decrease in traffic fatalities between 2015 and 2016. Of those 12 states, nine enforce texting and driving as a primary violation. Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, recently told the New York Times that’s it’s not just the phones that are causing the problems, but also “all these other apps that people can use.”

The Red Light Prayer

Ask just about any Floridian and they’ll tell you that they see it all of the time: drivers speeding on the highway, steering wheel in one hand, cellphone in the other, or so ensnared in a phone call, text or social media post that they have no idea they’re in the left lane doing well under the speed limit. And then there’s the so-called red-light prayer – covert texting while stopped as a driver holds a phone below the window sightline and in turn has his or her head in a down-facing position. They hardly ever notice when the light turns green.

Some state officials believe that Florida is right where it needs to be in terms of a texting whiledriving law. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, (R-St. Petersburg), recently told News 6 that texting while driving is “a technology problem and largely it’s going to be a technology solution.” Brandes added “Increasing crash-avoidance technology inside of vehicles I think ultimately is what’s going to help us reduce traffic accidents.”

“With all due respect to the senator, I understand where he’s coming from,” Chitwood said in response to the Brandes’ comment. Chitwood went on to say “and maybe, someday technology will catch up and we may have some kind of blockers that can work. But in the meantime, we have folks that are being run down, we have folks that are being severely injured, and government has a responsibility to protect its citizens. And to allow distracted driving to continue day-after-day, year-after-year, and see folks who are badly injured and killed is unconscionable.”

Demings also reacted to Brandes’ comment with one of his own: “To those who think this is simply a technology problem, I would say talk to the families of the victims who are injured or who die on our roadways. If it hasn’t happened to you or to one of your family members, sooner or later it will.”

Aside from wanting the law changed from secondary to primary enforcement, Chitwood has another gripe: not being able to access a driver’s phone to see if texting could have played a role in a crash.

“It takes an act of Congress in a fatal accident to get a search warrant,” Chitwood told us. “In particular, what we’re looking for is at the time of the crash, what was that phone or what were you doing?”

State Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, a four-year veteran of the House, shed some light on why law enforcement has such little power to search a driver’s cellphone. Stark told News 6 that back in 2013, one of the Miami legislators put language in the Senate version of the bill that said police could not take a look at the texting records of your phone unless the accident results in death or a serious injury.

“We should have easier access at the scene of a fatal accident,” Chitwood said. “It should be stipulated on our driver’s licenses (that) driving is a privilege, not a right and that law enforcement has the right to search your phone."

Both Chitwood and Demings also don’t concede to what some politicians and advocates alike commonly refer to as the elephant in the room: the fear from some lawmakers in the state’s Black Caucus that primary enforcement will be abused as a catchall and give police another excuse to pull over minorities.

Last month, state Sen. Bobby Powell, (D-West Palm Beach), told News 6 reporter Vanessa Araiza that while he was in favor of stricter regulation of texting while driving, he was also opposed to any more laws that would give law enforcement another way to pull over African-Americans and Hispanics because of the potential for exploitation.

“I think right now, the way it’s structured, until it’s structured in a manner that can eliminate some of the abuse, I couldn’t support it being a primary offense,” Powell said. “As a secondary offense, I supported it and I think that’s the best way for us to look at it right now in the state of Florida. Until we have different measures to change that, that’s what i support.”

Neither Demings nor Chitwood agree.

“I really don’t buy that,” Demings said. “I don’t stop someone based upon what color of their skin. And most law enforcement officers don’t stop people based upon the color of their skin. They stop people based on the violation of law they observed.”

“I can understand the sentiment of the minority community thinking any law that was passed could be used against them by law enforcement,” Chitwood said. But he also adds “The ultimate goal here is to keep the motoring public and the pedestrian public as safe as humanly possible.”

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