Mike Chitwood served for 18 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was the police chief in Shawnee, Oklahoma for one year and Daytona Beach, Florida for over 10 years. Since 2017 he has served as the sheriff of Volusia County, Florida.

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Sheriff Chitwood about his career, reducing use of force, and his recent COVID-19 infection.


Chuck Wexler: How are you feeling?

Sheriff Chitwood: I’m feeling much better. The last couple days I think I’ve been back to 100%.

I went to the Florida sheriffs’ summer conference in Naples, Florida. Of the 67 sheriffs, I think 40 attended. There was social distancing and mask wearing. I was there from Sunday afternoon through Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday afternoon, I felt like there was something stuck in my throat and, no matter how much water I drank, that feeling would not go away. On Thursday night, I developed a fever over 102 degrees. On Friday there was the possibility of a hurricane coming through, so I decided I better get checked out, because I couldn’t be in the emergency operations center sick and infecting people.

I got tested, and they told me I had COVID-19. They prescribed Z-Pak, over-the-counter medications for congestion, zinc, and Tylenol for body aches.

Friday night it really hit me, and it lasted through Monday. I had massive migraine headaches, nausea, body aches, fever, and insomnia. I slept about an hour a day, and the headaches were debilitating. I couldn’t focus on anything. I just lay down on the bathroom floor because the cool tile floor felt good with the fever.

A week after that, even though I tested positive on my 11th day, they allowed me to go back to work because my symptoms had subsided and the CDC guidelines had changed. I made sure I was social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing my hands as many times as I could.

Now I’m 19 or 20 days into it. I haven’t had a headache or nausea in the last two days, and before then I would get that every night.

I have a good team in place, and the organization didn’t miss a beat. Last week, one of my district captains came down with COVID, and now my chief deputy has come down with it. They didn’t have any contact with me at all. When I got back from my conference, we had one Zoom meeting with the command staff before I got sick.

Last week two Florida sheriff’s deputies, one 40 years old and the other 47 years old, passed away from COVID-19. And we saw what happened in New York City, Detroit, and other places. But we’ve been lucky, and so far we have only had 15 people out of an organization of 900 who tested positive.

Wexler: Have other Florida sheriffs contracted COVID-19?

Sheriff Chitwood:  Seven sheriffs at that conference tested positive, as did the incoming Florida Speaker of the House and the corrections commissioner and his deputy. The governor and state attorney general both attended the conference, but fortunately they did not test positive. The seven sheriffs have had varying symptoms. I know one other sheriff had it bad, like I did.

During my 33 years of policing, the thinking was that you never take a sick day. You take over-the-counter medications and go to work. But even if I had not been told to quarantine, there was no way I could have come to work.

Wexler: Didn’t one Florida sheriff prohibit his deputies from wearing masks?

Sheriff Chitwood:  Yes, the Marion County sheriff. My personal opinion is that it’s all political. A city in his county was one of the first to mandate mask-wearing. I think it comes down to a Democrats vs. Republicans issue.

While I don’t mandate our deputies to wear masks, they are provided with all PPE gear and are strongly encouraged to put on a mask if they have the time. Sometimes we don’t have the time to do that.

One of the things I fought for down here is a nightly report from the Department of Health with the addresses of all positive and suspected cases of COVID-19, so that when we would dispatch police, fire, or EMS they would know if someone in the house has tested positive and could take the steps to prepare themselves. That’s how we left it: “You’re an adult and you know when you need to put that mask on.”

Sometimes in police work you can’t do it. You have to jump out of your car or some other spur-of-the-moment thing. On back-to-back days we just had to negotiate with armed, mentally ill people, and the negotiations were almost face-to-face, just behind a barrier. You can’t negotiate with a mask on.

When the tornado hit, we’re going door-to-door searching for survivors in destroyed homes. You’re not going to have time to wear a mask when you’re trying to run around and help people.

We have the gear and strongly encourage people to wear them, but it’s not mandated.

Wexler: Do you think about pushing harder for masks after your experience with COVID-19?

Sheriff Chitwood:  The personal part of me, absolutely. But the professional part of me knows the things deputies are dealing with and that they have to perform their duties the best that they can. For example, when you’re negotiating with an armed suicidal suspect, you’re trying to establish a dialogue to save somebody’s life. I was personally involved in a recent negotiation, along with two other people. It’s imperative to have the trust of that person, and I think talking through a mask would inhibit that.

Having said that, if we get a call to break up a party or shut down a bar that’s not supposed to be operating, by all means we want our deputies wearing masks.


Policing Career

Wexler: You started in the Philadelphia Police Department. Tell us about your experience in that agency and why you left.

Sheriff Chitwood:  I had 18 years with the Philadelphia Police Department and was a lieutenant in the Homicide Division. You couldn’t ask for anything more that. As a second-generation cop, I aspired to work in the Homicide Division.

One night I was bored. I don’t know how you can get bored in a city that averaged 400 murders a year, but I was. I thought that I’d like to try my hand at being a police chief. I had just taken the captain’s test, scored number one on the written portion but did poorly on the oral portion. My overall mark put me at number 63, and they don’t promote 63 captains.

So I thought that, at this rate, I’d never get to run my own department. John Timoney, who was a tremendous influence on my life, was the police chief in Miami at the time, and I told him what I was thinking of doing. He encouraged me to go for it. Get out there and see what it’s like when you break away from home.

I applied to 10 different cities. I had five interviews and was offered two chief jobs: Shawnee, Oklahoma and Hillsborough, North Carolina. I chose to go to Shawnee because it was a bigger department – 60 officers, compared to Hillsborough’s 28 officers. It was hard to leave home and the organization I grew up in, but the experience over the last 15 years has been worth it. I was the chief in Shawnee for a year before I was hired in Daytona Beach, Florida. I wasn’t going to apply for the Daytona Beach job because the folks in Shawnee treated me really well. But Daytona Beach was going to double my salary and the department was five times larger.

Wexler: Why did John Timoney decide to be your mentor?

Sheriff Chitwood:  I think it was because of my work ethic. I was a second-generation cop. My dad did this for 55 years and was a huge influence on my life. I would call my father relentless, and I think I got that from him. I would come in on my days off. I would work out in the police station, then go through police reports to look at violent crime, robberies, and shootings to see if there was a pattern. Believe it or not, there were a lot of times when I was going over things on my days off and notice connections.

I remember when John changed the way we did pedestrian stops. We used to just write a name, date of birth, and address on a piece of paper. Because we were under a consent decree for stopping minorities at a much higher rate, John revised that form so that officers had to show reasonable suspicion or a violation and better describe the encounter.

A month after that form was implemented, I came into work on Christmas Day and discovered there had been six gunpoint robberies the night before. I went to the new form and found that earlier in the day there was a report about a guy wearing a red Phillies sweatshirt who brandished a gun while in a domestic disturbance with his mother. All those robberies had been committed by a guy in a red Phillies sweatshirt with a gun. On Christmas night I brought detectives in to put together photo displays and go out and grab this guy. He was in custody and charged on December 26th because of the in-depth reporting required by that form.

John Timoney knew that the number of stops would decrease, but the quality would go through the roof. Nobody understood that at the time. I didn’t understand it until that case on Christmas.

Wexler: What was your experience like in Daytona Beach?

Sheriff Chitwood:  It was the best experience of my policing career. When I got there, violent crime, burglaries, and drugs were major issues. There was zero community support. It was so bad that they were trying to build a new police station and the minority community did not want the police station in their community. They wanted it moved as far away from Midtown as possible.

I knew I had a lot of changes to make. I had a great city manager and a great mayor. She was the first female and first African-American mayor. When she hired me, she asked me to promise that I’d leave it better than I found it. She laid out the problems she saw, and they were the same problems I saw.

One of John Timoney’s rules was that when they hired someone from the outside, they expected that person to make changes. And that window doesn’t stay open long, because the old guard will fight tooth and nail, so get everything through before they close that window on you.

We brought in Compstat, changed the command staff, and emphasized education. My goal was to make sure everyone had at least an associate’s degree. We partnered with the local state university, and by the time I left, over 60 of our 250 cops had gone back to get their associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees at almost no cost to them. In 2012 we were the first police department in Florida to fully implement body cameras.

I was fortunate enough to go to Scotland with PERF to look at how Police Scotland, whose patrol officers do not carry firearms, deals with mentally ill people with edged weapons. We brought some of those things back and implemented them in Daytona Beach. The Tampa Bay Times did a study at the end of my tenure showing that the Daytona Beach Police Department was the least likely in the state to use deadly force when encountering somebody with an edged weapon. I was proud that we were able to partner with PERF to accomplish that.

When I was hired, sergeants were the only ones who carried Tasers. We fully implemented a Taser program to help reduce those deadly encounters.

Wexler: Why did you then decide to run for sheriff?

Sheriff Chitwood:  I was out running one morning when the incumbent sheriff, who had been in that role for 16 years, announced he was retiring. I got a phone call from the former mayor of Daytona Beach saying, “You need to run for sheriff. It’s 2.5 times bigger than the Daytona Beach Police Department, and you will have a much bigger voice county-wide and in the state of Florida.”

Business leaders and others also called, encouraging me to run. I had been in Daytona for ten-and-a-half years, and I knew it was getting to be time to leave. I had put my heart and soul into it, and change is good. I think after a police chief or sheriff serves for 10-12 years, they have to get out of the way and let progress continue. You don’t want to stay there, let things become stagnant, and destroy all the innovative and creative things you did.

So I ran, and I won. It was a field of five and I won in the primary, with more votes than the other four candidates combined. I took office in January 2017, and was just reelected without an opponent.

One of the platforms I ran on was about use of force. It was about technology, training, education, and community relations. We built some really great coalitions with the minority community in Daytona Beach. I was endorsed by both the NRA and the NAACP, and I don’t know many people who get endorsed by both those groups.

In my first six months as sheriff, we had six police shootings. All were lawful, and some were absolutely awful. The culture of the sheriff’s office was that of a warrior mentality. The motto for the training division was “confidence in the line of fire.” They viewed themselves as the Marines.

I brought PERF in during the second half of 2017 to do a study on just about everything, including culture, policy, procedure, and training. We implemented every single recommendation. In 2018, the entire department underwent ICAT de-escalation training. It implemented a lot of the things I picked up in Scotland: sanctity of human life; time, distance, and cover; and the Critical Decision-Making Model. These were all new things that we wanted our deputies trained on.

In 2019, after the whole department was trained, our use of force dropped by 50%. Our arrests went down. Our deadly force encounters went down. Crime went down. Injuries to officers went down. So we knew we were on to something good. There were no negatives.

Numbers will fluctuate. Our two deadly shootings in 2019 involved mentally ill people who fired at us and engaged us in a gun battle, and there’s really not a lot we could do in those situations. But we gave out about 20 tactical de-escalation medals, which is on par with the medal of valor. Those are the two highest awards.

The two incidents last week very easily could have ended in police shootings. But with a little luck, a lot of hard work, and proper training, I think we were able to turn that tide in potential suicide-by-cop situations.

Wexler: What’s the difference between serving as police chief and serving as sheriff? Which do you prefer?

Sheriff Chitwood: A police chief is running for his or her life every day. A sheriff runs once every four years. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, progressive, innovative police leaders are being sacked by mayors and city councils who have no understanding of policing. They are setting their organizations and cities back decades by looking for a scapegoat and not realizing the talent that’s there. That’s why I say a police chief is running for their life every day. As a sheriff, I run every four years and I’m responsible to the voters. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.