A sheriff in Volusia County, Florida is responding to accusations of racial profiling after two of his officers broke up a block party on Saturday (May 16) and arrested two men on gun charges. The sheriff, Mike Chitwood, posted a series of tweets on Monday (May 18) addressing the backlash and defending the officers.
According to CNN, approximately 3000 people — predominantly Black — gathered on Saturday afternoon in Deland, Florida for the outdoor event. Aerial footage shows police strategizing on how best to "break up" the block party. Florida law prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people due to coronavirus concerns.
"I think they're running it until 10, so, just so we don't have a big problem, let's let them run it until 10 as long as they behave," one officer is heard saying over the video. However, "things started getting out of hand as day turned to night," according to a statement released by Volusia County Sheriff's Office (VCSO).
Police were patrolling the block party around 10:30pm when, according to the VCSO statement, "a passenger in a vehicle pointed a rifle or shotgun out of an open window, in the direction of a deputy and pedestrians gathered at a gas station."
CNN reports that the situation escalated from there:
Shortly after midnight, police say deputies walking through the block party witnessed a firearm exchange between two men. A deputy approached the men commanding them to drop the gun, and one of the men ran away, according to VCSO's statement. The deputy ran after the man. The suspect allegedly threw the gun and kept running, but he was taken to the ground nearby, the statement reads.
Both men were arrested and charged with multiple crimes, including possession of a weapon and resisting arrest.
CNN's report continues:
VCSO says that two deputies were hit with a cup of alcohol and while the person who threw it was being taken into custody, one of the deputies was sucker punched by another male subject who immediately fled the area. Additionally, another deputy and a DeLand police officer were hit with a bar stool and mason jar by other members of the crowd who immediately also fled, according to a statement by VCSO. Crowds gathered in the neighborhood continued to throw glass bottles at patrol vehicles in the street while arrests were being made, the statement adds.
When asked during a press conference why the police didn't "put the kibosh" on the party from the beginning when they first learned about it the preceding Wednesday, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said, "Look at anywhere else in the state of Florida, these events are occurring, so, you're not going to put the kibosh on it because another one is going to pop up somewhere else."
Asked why they chose not to enforce social distancing guidelines, Chitwood responded, "It's a personal responsibility (social distancing), it's not law enforcement's job to enforce quote unquote social distancing."
Deland Police Chief Jason Umberger added, "Our officers, we've told them, don't get in the middle of trying to enforce social distancing. You talk about strained community relations with police, now we're going to tell people they can't stand—you're five feet apart, you're not six—we really need to take a step back and think it through."
Still, according to CNN, several partygoers are claiming the police presence and subsequent arrests were racially motivated. Chitwood categorically denied those claims on social media, and offered a history lesson on racism as well:
Our nation was built on the backs of slaves whose descendants have been disenfranchised, discriminated against, segregated and lynched. This is the bitter truth that all of us have to acknowledge no matter our skin color or political beliefs.— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) May 18, 2020
Just trying to set the tone as we talk about what happened this weekend. Our deputies & police officers were dispersing large block parties and had just made a lawful arrest of a felon w/ a loaded gun when parts of the crowd turned against them, throwing bottles and glass jars.— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) May 18, 2020
Most saw the video for what it is: A few outnumbered deputies & police trying their best to shut down a party that got too big & blocked too many streets. There was a gun pointed at a crowd; a shooting that thankfully didn’t kill anyone. We had a responsibility to step in.— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) May 18, 2020
But given everything we know about our nation’s history, I also know those feelings aren’t just about Saturday night.— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) May 18, 2020
That’s why I’m asking everyone to hit pause and take a second to cool off, myself included.
To those of you angry about the behavior of the crowd, believe me, I understand.— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) May 18, 2020
But before you post a comment that dehumanizes a group of people based on their race, remember the context of how we got to this point in America, and the pain that others are still feeling.
The way through stuff like this is together, not divided.— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) May 18, 2020