VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Volusia County Beach Safety Patrol is firing back at Sheriff Mike Chitwood after the division said he came down in support of bills that would grant him full power over the area it monitors.
In a new release issued Saturday by the Volusia Waterman’s Association, which represents the Volusia Beach Safety Division, the group said if passed, the Florida House and Senate bills in question would put “thousands of lives at risk” and diminish “essential services.”
SB 1588 and HB 1595 would give sheriff’s offices control over unincorporated areas and wouldn’t allow other police units to exist there, including on the beaches. In most Central Florida counties, deputies already provide that patrol but in Volusia, it would mean the end of the county’s Beach Patrol force, currently comprised of 58 armed police officers, lifeguards and medics.
“What this bill would do, in my opinion, and no one likes change, is it would enhance policing services,” said Chitwood, adding he would take 35 of the 58 beach patrol officers onto his staff.
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In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Chitwood added that he belies the move “will make Volusia County safer and more efficient” as “lifeguards can focus on saving lives” and “deputies can focus on enforcing the law.”
The group representing the Beach Patrol disagrees.
“We’re the busiest lifeguard state agency on the East Coast. We make rescues with no accolades, no parades. We pull people out of the water, save them,” Volusia Waterman’s Association union president said at a news conference on Monday. “Removing 35 of those professional lifeguards and reallocating them will result in less eyes on the water and therefore more danger to the beach.”
The group went on to claim that Chitwood “will not allow these officers to conduct life-saving water rescues,” adding it’s worried that the removal of patrol members would “endanger the safety of the public and the image of our tourism-driven communities.”
“Not only do Beach Safety Officers conduct a high number of law enforcement tasks, they also conduct a large number of ocean rescue and EMS calls,” Volusia Waterman’s Association said in a statement. “In fact, the Beach Safety Division rendered 58,141 law enforcement calls from 2017-2021. In that same timespan, the Division conducted 160,820 ocean rescue actions and 7,815 EMS calls.”
The president of the union also added that the team worked to get “crowds down to a murmur” during spring break, to ensure residents were not disrupted.
The association also touted the environmental management patrol officers oversee, allowing beach driving and public access to the shore.
“We allege that this proposal by the Sheriff is misguided and ignorant of the complex management system which is required to keep our beaches running smoothly. We allege that the proposal is an authoritarian power-grab which relies on a theft of essential services from the public which are intended to shore-up the chronically-understaffed Sheriff’s Office. We allege an egregious lack of transparency from the Sheriff’s Office, which has not allowed the public or the Beachside municipalities the opportunity to participate in a robust public dialogue regarding these important issues which will impact the whole of the county’s citizens,” the association said.
Chitwood responded on Sunday with a statement.
“Please read the proposed legislation, which prevents any county from transferring the duties and responsibilities of the Office of the Sheriff, Property Appraiser, Clerk of Courts, Supervisor of Elections and Property Appraiser. We plan to follow the law in Volusia County, just as every other county in Florida must do.”Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood
Bryon White, a spokesman for Volusia Waterman’s Association and a retired law enforcement officer, lifeguard and EMT who worked on Volusia beaches for 20 years, said Monday the group wants to open a dialogue with Chitwood.
He further said he understands that all law enforcement and public safety departments across the nation are “critically understaffed right now,” but doesn’t think the answer lies in filling Volusia County Sheriff’s Office vacancies with Beach Patrol officers.
“I would like to emphasize that we do want to speak with the sheriff. We believe that his intentions are good. We think that he wants to provide a high level of services to the community. We believe that we can assist in him creating a program that works for everyone. He just needs to come talk to us and be transparent about his plans,” White said.
The sheriff posted a response to the news conference on Tuesday, calling out White for “working hard to stoke fear to preserve the status quo for his friends.”
“It’s been suggested by the beach union that we should take over ALL of Beach Safety, not just law enforcement. The truth is, I’d be open to that. Beach Safety has some of the best employees in the business. But that’s a decision that’s up to Volusia County, not me, and it’s not what the legislation proposes,” the post read in part.
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