How law enforcement agencies are evolving in Central Florida

Training, mental health come into forefront

As controversial police shootings make headlines, officers are focusing more on de-escalation training to help them in tense encounters.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Across the greater Orlando area, leaders at law enforcement agencies are examining their practices and policies and determining what needs to be done to improve the policing system as a whole.

These sheriffs and police chiefs have been analyzing their shortcomings and taking steps to correct any deficiencies.

[SOLUTIONARIES: How you can help improve policing practices | What is Solutionaries?]

Changes of this magnitude undoubtedly take time but they are underway.

The conversations surrounding reform have been happening for years but hit a fever pitch in May 2020 after George Floyd, a Black man, died with a white officer’s knee pinned to his neck.

Floyd’s death put the spotlight back on other Black men and women who’ve died during use of force incidents and questionable police encounters as a whole, some of which happened in our backyard.

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‘They’re a legal gang’

Jomardrick Wilcox was at a pizza shop in Daytona Beach in June 2019 when he was taken into custody with one officer placing a knee on his back and another holding a Taser near his head.

“I thought it was a pistol,” Wilcox said. “All I know is there is a weapon to my head, and at any moment, if he felt like it, there goes my life.”

The incident began on a busy weekend night as officers were trying to disperse crowds.

Wilcox and his friends were waiting to order pizza and the manager of the restaurant said they could stay to order their food even as police arrived and officer Jerome Hassell told them to leave.

“I told the officer, ‘But we’re paying customers.’ You know, it’s not like we’re just loitering around here,” Wilcox said.

With approval from the manager, Hassell allowed Wilcox and his friends to stay and was in the process of leaving the eatery when Wilcox started cursing, according to the report.

“What’d you say?” Hassell asked in video of the incident.

“I said get the (expletive) out of here. You can’t arrest me,” Wilcox replied, according to the footage.

The video then shows the crowd protesting as Hassell pushed Wilcox up against a wall, forced him to the ground and arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The charges were dropped and Wilcox has since filed a federal lawsuit claiming he was wrongfully arrested and battered by the officers, who were cleared of wrongdoing.

Wilcox said he’s frustrated to see there was no accountability in his case.

“For me, police officers are just a big game, a gang, a legal one. They’re a legal gang, they watch out for each other and they legally can do things that regular gangs can’t do, which is why they get away with a lot of stuff,” Wilcox said.

The Daytona Beach Police chief and a man who says he was wrongfully arrested both agree that officers should do a better job of policing each other.

Mike Scudiero, the executive director of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, represented the officers involved in Wilcox’s arrest during an internal affairs investigation and said that in this instance, they did nothing wrong.

“Had (Wilcox) just cooperated when he was told to put his hands behind his back, they don’t go to the ground,” Scudiero said.

He said there was nothing excessive about the arrest and Wilcox was taken into custody because they believed his language could have incited a riot.

Wilcox’s lawsuit is about both justice and change. One of the suggestions he had was eliminating the “gang mentality” and “don’t snitch, cover it up” way of thinking within agencies and instead encourage officers to police each other.

“They could stop it. They could say, ‘Hey, man, listen to me right here. Yo, you go over there, bro. I’m gonna handle this. I’m in a calmer state. I can take this.’ I’m saying yeah, that could save thousands of lives if they just did something like that. But you will never hear that,” Wilcox said.

A Volusia County man has filed a federal lawsuit against the Daytona Beach Police Department.

Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young wasn’t the police chief when Wilcox was arrested and couldn’t comment on the specifics of the situation due to the lawsuit but he did say he supported Wilcox’s proposal.

“I agree with that 150% because here’s one thing that I’ve been saying for a long time: You know, whenever you see an incident occur, we focus back on the training and we can train all day long but there’s a couple things, it doesn’t matter how much we train, you cannot teach common sense and you cannot teach empathy,” Young said.

He said he expects his officers to keep each other in check.

“Step in. Grab him by the back of the uniform, the gun belt, whatever the case may be. Pull him back. Pull him back, step in and do your best to deescalate the situation. So I agree with (Wilcox) 150%. We should see it more, that’s what I expect from my officers and that’s what I’m going to continue to expect,” Young said.

News 6 viewer Dr. Sidney Crudup said that way of thinking should begin before an officer is even sworn in.

“I think it also has to be policing even at the academy level where you have to check who — I know they have these psychological evaluations, those kinds of things, but I think there needs to be a little bit more policing in that area to see exactly who we’re putting in this uniform and who we’re putting a gun on,” Crudup said.

‘It shows a bias toward police’

The figures show that it’s rare for an officer to face charges in connection with a use of force incident and it’s even rarer still for an officer to be convicted.

Dr. Phil Stinson is a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and has been tracking officer arrests and prosecutions across the country.

“We know from my own research that judges are similarly very reluctant to second guess police officers in their official conduct,” Stinson said.

From 2005 to 2014, he estimates that about 10,000 Americans were fatally shot by officers. During that time frame, 110 officers were criminally charged. Of those, 42 were convicted, 50 were not convicted and 18 cases are pending.

The Daytona Beach police chief says how he’s treated while in uniform is very different than how he’s treated when he’s not.

“It’s very difficult for a prosecutor to obtain a conviction even in cases of these shootings where we have strong video evidence,” Stinson said.

Five of the 42 officers were convicted of murder while the other 37 were sentenced on lesser charges, including manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.

“It shows a bias toward police and that is very real and that prevents justice,” Deb Barra said.

Barra was the chief assistant state attorney for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office and prosecuted Ocoee police officer Carlos Anglero for shooting into the wrong house in 2016.

No one was injured in the shooting but Anglero was charged and found guilty of a second-degree felony for firing into an occupied building.

“I feel I did the right thing. I prosecuted the case and I got a conviction,” Barra said.

Then the judge’s decision shocked her.

Barra was pushing for the maximum prison sentence of 15 years but the judge opted to withhold adjudication. Anglero was sentenced to community service and probation rather than serving any time in jail. He is not considered a convicted felon.

News 6 digital journalist Brianna Volz explains the meaning of withheld adjudication and how it comes into play in a court of law.  

“If the judge had adjudicated him guilty, he would be a convicted felon and would be no longer legally be able to carry a firearm, so he absolutely could not be a police officer,” Barra said, adding that she doesn’t agree with the outcome in this case.

As law enforcement practices improve, the goal is for law enforcement officers to not have to use their weapons in the first place.

At Valencia College in Orlando, officers attended a law enforcement training workshop featuring a 360-degree simulator that presented more than 200 different scenarios, 65% of which are designed to teach officers to deescalate the situation rather than use force.

“Deescalation can be communication, can be listening, employing empathy, creating distance to give yourself more time to make decisions,” Capt. Todd Gardiner from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said.

He said the goal is to reduce the number of shootings.

From Jan. 1, 2015 to June 1, 2020, the Washington Post documented 5,360 fatal police shootings in the U.S. A total of 346 of those occurred in Florida.

Examining those shootings by race and sex shows that for every one million Black males in this country, 64 were shot and killed by police compared to 23 white males per million during that same time period.

“As a 26-year veteran in law enforcement, I can tell you that your goal is never to end the situation with use of force and certainly not with deadly use of force,” Gardiner said.

John Bostain from Command Presence Training agreed and is taking steps to prevent those worst-case scenarios from happening.

“It’s alarming the number of shootings that are going on around the country,” Bostain said.

He teaches a course called, “De-escalation Strategies for Best Possible Outcomes” to law enforcement officers who then share the techniques with other officers in their department.

Ocoee Police Deputy Chief Vince Ogburn was one of those officers.

“We can use this tool to try to get the best possible outcome rather than somebody getting hurt, whether it’s the individual or the officer,” Ogburn said.

In the United States, there are no national standards for law enforcement use of force. While many departments do de-escalation training, experts say there haven’t been any rigorous studies to determine whether that training is effective or not.

When it comes to community feedback on the matter, the results are mixed.

“If they’ve gone through training, evidently they’re not using it. We see it all the time on the news,” LaSharon Clayton, of Apopka, said.

Lori Tramont, from Winter Park, said officers have to protect themselves first and foremost.

“If you have a gun pointed at you, I mean, they have to protect themselves as well, but I do believe in de-escalation. I believe in the heat of the moment cooler heads prevail and I do believe in de-escalation,” Tramont said.

News 6 viewer Avy Tato said the problem isn’t just with the use of force but also with what happens after.

“I think the statistics obviously stand for themselves that people are being killed, and very few officers are actually getting the punishment, I guess, for murder like a normal civilian would,” Tato said.

She pointed out that it doesn’t matter if the suspect had a criminal history, a point that came up after Floyd’s death.

“Cops aren’t supposed to kill guilty people either,” Tato said. “They’re not a judge, they’re not a jury, they don’t get to decide whether someone lives or dies. Their job is to keep the community safe and de-escalate and get that person down or whatever, or away from a threatening situation. It is not any person’s decision on whether another person lives or dies and the system is letting (officers) get away with that.”

‘We’re trying to turn the system on its head’

One cry that’s been echoed by law enforcement advocates is that officers are simply asked to do too much. They deal with mental health calls, domestic disputes, animal complaints and much more.

“Everything that goes wrong in society gets shoved down to the cops. We get it,” Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said.

He’s been a cop for decades and adamantly believes that needs to change.

“Whether it’s mental health, drugs, homelessness, you think of it. Why are cops dealing with that? Because the system is broke and we’re the last line of defense against something,” he said.

Now, he’s trying to fix that.

Sheriff Mike Chitwood says use of force incidents are down ever since he implemented new training protocols.

After he was sworn in in 2017, one of his first acts was to implement new de-escalation training that put an emphasis on ending stressful encounters peacefully.

That training was put to the test in June when a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl ran away from a foster care facility, broke into a home and used guns they found there to repeatedly fire at Volusia deputies.

Despite coming under fire multiple times, deputies did everything in their power not to shoot.

In body camera video, a sergeant can be heard begging to not have to use his weapon.

“Don’t make me do this. I don’t want to do this,” he said as he hid behind a tree, which was the only protection he had.

Eight deputies were forced to fire their weapons when the girl came out of the house with a gun. The girl survived and no deputies were injured.

“My deputies showed more restraint than I’m showing right now because I am furious that we could be burying somebody tonight. They took multiple multiple rounds... And I know for a fact one banana clip was empty from the AK-47. I know from the radio transmissions that a 12-year-old opened fire on us. I know that the 14-year-old opened fire on us with a shotgun and then walked out and threatened one of my sergeants and told him she was going to kill him. And we didn’t return fire. But after she came out of the garage, hey, there was nothing left that we could do. We had to do (what) we had to do,” Chitwood said hours after the incident.

The sheriff said he initially received criticism when he started implementing the de-escalation training but now he said he has proof that it’s working.

“What you see is injuries to deputies have dropped 50%, injuries to suspects have dropped 50%. Crime has dropped by double digits,” Chitwood said.

Records show use of force incidents dropped from 122 in 2017 to 87 the next year then down to 65 in 2019.

Deputies were also equipped with body cameras and given mental health training. Plus, Chitwood has plans to start his own police academy in the near future.

“I’m not afraid to tell you this as a Catholic schoolboy, I would probably be punished for it — I’m not afraid to plagiarize. If I see something good around the country, we’re adopting it. If I see a policy or a training issue that somebody is handling or a philosophy, we’re going to incorporate that,” Chitwood said.

He’d like to see more departments take the same approach.

“Fear of change and, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ and, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ That is something I’ve always hated. I hated it when I was a young cop hearing somebody say, ‘Well, why are we doing this?’ It’s kind of stupid to have someone say, ‘Shut up kid. This is the way we’ve always done it. It’s worked for 50 years,’” Chitwood said.

Volusia County deputy Kaelin Darcy said she’s gone through the modified training and has seen the benefits. Still, she said she has friends and others in her life who don’t understand why officers make the decisions they do.

“‘Why can’t you shoot them in the leg? Why couldn’t you have shot him in the arm?’ Well because when somebody’s pointing a gun at me, your heart rate is elevated and now you’re stressed and you’re trying to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand,” Darcy said.

Implicit bias recognition was also included in that training.

“I think if someone’s racist and they know they’re racist, it’s not going to help. For the normal person who goes around every day — like a normal cop who has no biases or racist — it can be an eye-opener to say maybe you do have some biases,” Darcy said.

She remembers that training now when she approaches a scene so that she won’t be so quick to rush to judgment.

“You’ll walk up to a house that could be in a rundown neighborhood and you’ll think, again, maybe it’s a drug area and you walk up and it’s this little grandma who has just lived there for 50 years and the bad neighborhood grew around her,” Darcy said.

Implicit bias was a term that floated around after a high-profile incident involving a jogger.

Joseph Griffin was out for a run in September 2020 when he was stopped by deputies who said he fit the description of a man wanted for a burglary. Griffin was wearing a white tank top and black shorts, as was the culprit.

Griffin used his cellphone to go live on Facebook so his friends could see what was happening. Deputies then placed him in zip ties while they investigated.

“For now, I’m going to detain you but you’re not under arrest,” a deputy said. “I’m detaining you now because you fit the description, OK? Just hang tight for me, OK buddy?”

Griffin was free to go 17 minutes after the encounter began.

“I know everyone’s a little on edge right now. We appreciate you being cool and I wanted to say thank you because not everybody would be that understanding and respectful,” a deputy told him.

Griffin has since taken the opportunity to speak with deputies during an implicit bias training and said that empathy is key no matter who you’re dealing with.

Knowing what implicit bias means could help you identify any of your own that you may have.

“Putting yourself in other people’s shoes, whether you’re the person being detained or the officer doing the detaining, just think as if it were you on the other side,” Griffin said.

Tato said in this case, the cameras also helped to keep everyone involved accountable.

“That was a good on both of their ends that they were both respectful, they were honest and they had their cameras on so you can see everything that went down. And I think the cameras helped a lot because they hold you accountable because you know, whatever you do, anybody can see it. So I was impressed by how they handled that for sure and like just it didn’t, they didn’t sound condescending at all. They were being honest, they were being empathetic. I don’t think anybody can have enough empathy, ever,” Tato said.

Young, the first Black police chief in Daytona Beach, said he understands what it feels like to fit a description.

“It’s frustrating because underneath my uniform right now, I have a white T-shirt. Underneath my uniform pants, I have on black shorts. And news flash: If you haven’t noticed, I’m a Black man, right? So when I take my uniform off, if I decide to go for a jog and I fit the description, guess what? I fit the description. Sometimes it’s frustrating to fit the description,” Young said.

He also opened up about how he’s treated when he’s in uniform versus when he’s not.

“I can literally tell you I’ve been in stores, in plain clothes, and you can see body language. You can see a level of discomfort but if I’m in uniform that same person who appears to be uncomfortable by my presence won’t stop talking to me because I’m in uniform. They love the police... but if I’m in plain clothes, I’ve literally seen a purse clutch underneath an arm. They have no idea that I’m the police chief. I’d be the first one to help you if someone actually came and tried to rob you or assault you in any shape, form or fashion,” Young said.

‘So many people struggling’

Young pointed out that so many of the calls his department receives stem from mental health issues.

“If law enforcement is the only ones at the table, then that’s a fail. If there’s no social services at the table or any of these other organizations that can help and assist with mental health, joblessness and a mantra of other things that contribute to stress — if it all comes back on law enforcement, then it’s a fail,” Young said.

He said there needs to be other resources in place.

“Certain problems, we can’t arrest our way out of,” Young said, adding that he’d rather make a referral in some cases to get to the root cause of the issue.

His department has created partnerships with SMA Healthcare to help those battling mental health issues. There’s also a crisis response team and a Drug Abuse Response Team plus a new team that focuses on minor crimes.

“(The team) focuses on small, minute crimes that are basically crimes committed by those that basically have no other means of taking care of themselves and supporting themselves so they end up with these minor infractions and they end up going to jail,” Young said.

Through another new partnership with Macy’s, the Daytona Beach Police Department received iPads that officers can give to a person dealing with a mental health crisis so they can be connected to a counselor.

“Being able to have those iPads and being able to log in... and allow a mental health professional to do a virtual counseling with someone, I think it’s huge and I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction because the last thing we want is an unnecessary use of force on someone that’s just experiencing a mental health crisis because unfortunately that’s something that’s happened in the past and it’s something we want to avoid moving forward,” Young said.

The Lake Mary Police Department also has a new public-private partnership meant to help those suffering from mental illness.

The Lake Mary Police Department created a unique partnership to help make sure residents’ mental health needs are being met. 

Officer Zach Hudson pulled together resources to form the Mental Health Intervention Group.

“You have so many people out there that are hurting, so many people struggling with their mental health, depression, schizophrenia or whatever it might be,” Hudson said. “And we have that contact with them, we deal with those people every day, but the only tool we’ve ever had historically is the Baker Act, which is when we take them into custody and take them to a mental health unit.”

The South Seminole Hospital is now identifying people in crisis and referring them to the Lake Mary Police Department and the 31 social workers the department works with in order to get them the help they need.

Through partnerships, the department is able to get medications for those who may not have insurance, food for those who may not have enough to eat and connect residents with appropriate counseling services.

“This is truly one-of-a-kind in the country, it’s the first time this type of system is being put into place, a public-private cooperative, to try and help people suffering from mental illness,” Hudson said. “We don’t want to criminalize someone’s mental health condition, that’s really important. In order to deal with the problems of today, we must be more innovative, more effective.”

‘There’s obviously better solutions out there’

Meaggan Thomas, the founder of Tampa Bay Activist Network, said one simple way to help reduce the likelihood of police interactions is by checking in with neighbors and loved ones to determine whether their basic needs are being met.

“You know, all this crime is happening because people don’t have the resources that they need in order to live a flourishing life. And so once we get that down pat and we start building community in mutual aid networks, and we’re there for each other, and we provide what the other lacks, I think that’s what an ideal world would be. We won’t need the police at a certain point but we have to start going down that avenue, phasing it out,” she said.

She started the organization after Floyd’s death last year.

“Oh, my God, I was like, obviously devastated. I’m tired of this happening over and over again. It’s really hard to think about. It’s very traumatizing to even talk about it, I’m getting, like, choked up,” she said. “And um, it just, it’s hurtful, it’s hurtful to see that happen. And I just, I’m hurt for the families to have to go through that and see it over and over again on national television.”

She said Floyd’s death and so many others prove that the police system isn’t working and that reform isn’t enough.

Continuing the conversation and creating specialized units are just some of the solutions that could help improve policing practices.

“When something’s not working over and over again for decades and decades, you know, you’ve got to change it. And this system isn’t working. People are dying. Why would we continue... with a system that’s literally murdering people on the streets? So we have to figure out a different way to go about, you know, crime, fixing crime, because police don’t even fix crime. So there’s obviously better solutions out there that we need to start exploring,” Thomas said.

She’d like to see an emphasis on social services instead so members of the community aren’t forced to commit crimes as a way to get their basic needs met.

“When people are living in scarcity, they get to a certain point where they have no other choice but to you know, steal. In other cases, it’s mental health, or they don’t have the resources to get their mental health on track. And that, you know, that has consequences,” Thomas said.

While she’d like to see the police system abolished altogether, another common viewpoint is the idea of defunding the police. Under that concept, some money from police budgets would be reallocated to other government entities but law enforcement agencies wouldn’t cease to exist.

“You have those out there that, you know, when they say defund the police they mean just that: They want to defund the police and they want to completely disband law enforcement. They want to do away with it. They feel like law enforcement in this country has become an epic fail and we’re better off without it. I believe that’s one side of it. The other side is more reallocation of funding for those social services,” Young said.

He said even reallocating can pose problems.

“I just think we have to be careful when we start looking at stripping down the budget in any shape, form or fashion for law enforcement, especially now,” Young said.

He’s a firm believer that reform is possible and it’s happening right here in Central Florida.

“When you start talking about defunding, that doesn’t help. It doesn’t help at all. I think we need to continue to train, we need to continue to engage in these dialogues in our community,” Young said.

Watch the entire pilot episode of Solutionaries below:

The first episode of News 6's new Solutionaries digital newscast focused on improving policing practices in Central Florida.

Note: The episode mentions a police use of force bill awaiting the governor’s signature. As of June 29, that bill has been signed.

About the Authors:

Emmy Award-winning reporter Louis Bolden joined the News 6 team in September of 2001 and hasn't gotten a moment's rest since. Louis has been a General Assignment Reporter for News 6 and Weekend Morning Anchor. He joined the Special Projects/Investigative Unit in 2014.

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.