Sheriff Mike Chitwood had seen enough.
“My deputies showed more restraint than I am right now,” Chitwood said during an impassioned news conference in Volusia County, Florida, Tuesday night, after eight Volusia deputies faced gunfire from a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl who had walked away from a juvenile group home. “I am furious that we could be burying somebody tonight.”
For 90 minutes Tuesday, eight Volusia County sheriff’s deputies faced a terrifying shootout with the two minors, which ended with the 14-year-old shot, though not killed. In the hours afterward and again the next morning, the sheriff of the central Florida county that includes Daytona Beach held two fiery press conferences to defend his deputies’ actions and lash out at a Florida juvenile justice system that, he believed, was at the root of the violence.
“I cannot imagine how hard it was for the deputies who have children that age,” Chitwood said Wednesday. “I don’t know what the residual effects are for the rest of their careers, but nobody comes to work to shoot anybody. We certainly don’t come to work to get in gunfights with 12- and 14-year-olds.”
Watch Sheriff Mike Chitwood’s Tuesday night press conference, following a shootout between his deputies and two minors.
Chitwood called the Florida United Methodist Church Children’s Home “a complete failure and a disgrace to the juvenile justice system.” He said his deputies had responded to the home almost 300 times in the previous year, and that a staff member had recently died after being punched twice by a juvenile resident.
The two juveniles walked away from the group home in the town of Enterprise on Tuesday. The 14-year-old girl had been at the home only one full day, and the 12-year-old boy, Chitwood said, was a severe diabetic who requires insulin every four hours.
“I don’t know what to say — where have we gone wrong that a 12-year-old and 14-year-old think it’s okay to take on law enforcement? What the hell is the [Florida] Department of Juvenile Justice doing sending these kids to places that can’t handle them?”
On Thursday, the children’s home announced a 30-day pause on accepting “at risk” children like at least one of the two in the Enterprise shootout.
Kitwana McTyer, president and CEO of the home, told The Associated Press that “the level of children who are being sent to us through Emergency Shelter Care at times is beyond the scope of our capabilities to provide the care required and limits who we can serve as part of our mission.”
In a statement on Twitter, Chitwood said the 14-year-old had been assigned to the home by state authorities rather than a judge.
The Florida DJJ is lying and spinning facts rather than addressing a crisis in our juvenile justice system. I know @GovRonDeSantis can roll up his sleeves and fix this. He is a leader who will listen to the people working the front lines of this crisis. pic.twitter.com/YWV4nRVzhb
— Mike Chitwood (@SheriffChitwood) June 4, 2021
Referring once to the minors as “little desperadoes” Tuesday night, Chitwood said the 14-year-old girl had set fire to another group home in which she had been placed.
The shootout took place after the minors walked over a mile down a bike path through a nearby neighborhood. The pair broke into a home on a 26-acre property that abuts a nearby lake. There, Chitwood said, they found a shotgun, an AK-47, a handgun, and 200 rounds of ammunition.
Deputies searching for the pair — who’d been dispatched because of the boy’s need for insulin — quickly surrounded the house and almost immediately began taking fire. After about 90 minutes, the 14-year-old came out of the house and fired one of the guns at deputies, a scene caught on infared video from a circling helicopter. Deputies then opened fire, firing about 15 rounds, according to Chitwood, hitting the girl three times. The boy then surrendered.
“This wasn’t a split second [in which] we exchange gunfire,” Chitwood said. “We were out here from 7:30 to almost 9 o’clock before we returned fire. We took fire that whole time.”
Referring to armored vehicles, Chitwood said, “People say, ‘why do you want BearCats?’ There’s a reason why.”
Watch Chitwood’s Wednesday morning press conference.
Born in Philadelphia in 1963 and a cop there until 2005, Chitwood — his Philadelphia accent bubbling to the surface repeatedly — drifted between outrage at the brazen level of violence his deputies had faced, pride at their restraint, and, at times, troubled reflection on the idea that two children in foster care could find themselves in a deadly shootout with law enforcement.
“This is something I’ve never seen in 35 years of policing,” Chitwood said. “I’m sad to say that I’m glad my career is starting to come to an end because I don’t know what the future of law enforcement looks like in this country. They want to defund us, they want to sanction us and take qualified immunity away, they want to make us the bad guys, and yet you have 12- and 14-year-old thugs who want to shoot it out.”
Chitwood reserved his deepest scorn for Florida lawmakers, who he said have not faced up to a justice system that shuffles juveniles between group homes that are neither trained nor inclined to deal with violent offenders.
“The legislature needs to get off its ass, stop going to cocktail hours while they’re in session, come out and ride with the boots on the ground,” he said. “More importantly, talk to the victims of juvenile crime.”