DeLAND, Fla. – After body camera video that shows Volusia County deputies breaking up block parties over the weekend received mixed reactions -- with some saying his deputies’ actions were racially motivated -- Sheriff Mike Chitwood is defending his deputies and asking the community to take a step back before forming any conclusions about the video.
The video, which was posted to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, shows a huge crowd attending a block party near Delaware Avenue, despite social distancing guidelines still in effect throughout Florida amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Deland Police and the [Volusia County] Sheriff’s Office became aware of a block party on Wednesday or Thursday through a social media post that was going to be taking place in the Spring Hill community," DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger said in a news briefing Monday. “The primary gathering spot took place in unincorporated Volusia County but in very close proximity to the city limits. The after-party was also advertised as taking place inside the [DeLand] city limit.”
Authorities estimated that at least 3,000 people gathered across DeLand for a memorial and block parties that spanned many different locations on Saturday. Deputies said the parties went on well into the early hours of Sunday.
“Based on the accounts from our officers and deputies, at least early on in the event, it was a peaceful event,” Umberger said.
When deputies arrived to break up the large gatherings, the situation quickly escalated, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Let’s call it what it is: it was an absolute [expletive] show that somebody could have been killed, and law enforcement is being tarred as racist and I’m not going to stand for that,” Chitwood said. “We were out there doing the job we are paid to do.”
Deputies said there were many alarming things that happened while they tried to control the crowds, and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said that deputies encountered sucker punches and had objects like bar stools and mason jars thrown at them.
Deputies said a long gun was also pointed out of a passing car. One Volusia County deputy suffered a minor knee injury, while a DeLand police officer had a minor head injury.
“Things continued to escalate as several people were arrested,” Umberger said. “In one instance there was a report that a rifle was pointed at one of the VCSO deputies, a Deland police officer was struck in the head by a glass jar trying to assist the VCSO deputy in making an arrest on a firearms violation. In addition, a VCSO deputy was struck with a bar stool.”
A 34-year-old Orlando man, who originally told police he was from Altamonte Springs, was also shot in the foot during the incident. Two men have been arrested in connection to the shooting, deputies said.
The two men, 27-year-old Alphonso Parker and 37-year-old Charles Turner, were each taken into custody and charged with resisting an officer without violence, inciting a riot and possession of a firearm/ammunition by a convicted felon, deputies said.
“No matter what anybody wants to say, 25 cops out there, 3,000 people, a hostile environment ... we had a riot, and from the sheriff’s side, we made seven arrests, three of those arrests involved a handgun. We did 12 traffic stops, five citations, towed five vehicles, made seven arrests over two firearms and recovered narcotics and $3,800 in cash,” Chitwood said.
Chitwood said it was during the arrests of those suspects when some members of the crowd began acting violently toward deputies.
“As many of you have seen on video, our deputies and police officers were dispersing large block parties this weekend and had just made a lawful arrest of a convicted felon handling a loaded gun when parts of the crowd turned against them, throwing bottles and glass jars,” Chitwood said in a Facebook post addressing comments made about the body camera video posted online. “The behavior from the crowd was unacceptable and dangerous. The deputies and police officers did the best they could in extremely difficult circumstances, and I commend every one of them for resolving the situation without retaliation, prejudice or fear.”
Chitwood said the video has received mixed reactions online, with many saying his deputies’ actions were racially motivated. The sheriff said he believes racism is still an issue in the United States, and that it’s important for people to recognize that, but he doesn’t believe that was the reason for what took place over the weekend.
“Online, the reaction to the video footage has been varied. I believe most saw the video for what it is: A few outnumbered deputies and police officers trying their best to shut down a party that got too large at night, and blocked too many streets and neighborhoods," Chitwood said. "There was a gun pointed at a crowd and a deputy; there was a shooting that thankfully didn’t kill anyone. We had a responsibility to be there and to disperse the crowds.”
Chitwood said that because the majority of attendees in the crowd were black and the fact that the responding deputies and police were white, the community is now having to have hard conversations about race, racism and inequality.
“I don’t accept the accusations that our deputies and police are racists, or that their actions Saturday were racially motivated. It’s not true, and it’s not a fair conclusion from the video,” Chitwood said. “But given everything we know about our nation’s history, I also know those feelings aren’t just about Saturday night.”
The sheriff thanked those who were offering their support for his deputies but also said he understands why some people are angry and don’t see it the same way.
Chitwood is asking everyone to take a moment to look at the bigger picture before passing judgment about the situation.
“Just as we often ask our critics not to judge law enforcement by the bad actions of a few, we can’t pass broad judgment on others,” Chitwood said.
He also asked that people think about why people may feel a certain way before posting hurtful comments online.
“But before you post a comment that dehumanizes a group of people based on their race, I ask that you remember the context of how we got to this point in America, and the pain that others are still feeling,” Chitwood said. “The way through stuff like this is together, not divided.”
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office posted a video of the large crowds from the beginning of the day to night time, and you can see the videos here.
“I have been here 14 years, as the police chief in Daytona Beach and as the sheriff. We have always put racial relations at a high premium. That is why we are here. We want everyone to feel that they are being policed fairly. How it’s perceived is different from how it really happens,” Chitwood said.