March 11, 2023

Police leaders using the bully pulpit

PERF members,

I think successful chiefs and sheriffs tend to be fairly reserved and circumspect when speaking to the public. But sometimes an issue arises that’s so compelling, chiefs and sheriffs need to stand up and demonstrate indignation and outrage, both because the situation calls for it and because it helps bring a community together.

President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the use of a platform to advocate for a cause as the “bully pulpit.” In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen two inspiring examples of police leaders stepping up and using the bully pulpit to speak out on fundamental issues.

First it was Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, Florida, in a press conference following a series of antisemitic acts in the area. “You came to the wrong county,” he announced to the hate group behind those attacks, which had also threatened him personally on social media. Chitwood added, “I stand with my Jewish friends and I’m honored to be on your hit list.”

Next it was Chief Tom Manger of the U.S. Capitol Police, responding to a Fox TV commentary that portrayed the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol as a peaceful protest. The commentary was “filled with offensive and misleading conclusions” based on cherry-picked footage of the event, he explained.  Addressing his department, he wrote, “Those of you who were here on January 6, those of you who were in the fight, those of you who ensured that no member of Congress was hurt, those of you who contributed to the effort to allow the country’s Legislative process to continue know firsthand what actually happened.”

Concern about the possible political fallout can discourage police leaders from speaking blunt truths, but there are times when speaking out is essential. Standing up to hate groups and protecting our nation’s democratic institutions are two such times.  

To learn more about what made them decide to act and what they hope they accomplished, I talked with Mike and Tom separately the other day. Here’s my conversation with Mike:


Chuck Wexler: Recently you spoke out about hate crime in your county and you made some pretty strong statements. Can you give me the background on what was going on that made you think you needed to speak out?

Mike Chitwood: Recently, we have seen an uptick in antisemitic literature, graffiti, and anonymous threats to our Jewish community. And it really came to a head during the Daytona 500. That weekend, a group by the name of the Goyim Defense League (GDL) made their way into Central Florida and began to wreak havoc. They blocked people from going into or out of the synagogue. They left antisemitic literature on doorsteps. They had a projector that projected calls for genocide to the Jewish people. They did it during the Florida-Georgia football game in November and they did it on the side of the speedway; if you were driving by, it looked like the speedway was projecting this message. They hung banners over the top of the interstate denouncing the Jewish faith, denouncing blacks, denouncing people who are gay—the typical hate that come out of these neo-Nazis. And you could tell there was palpable fear in the community.

When they came here to protest, with the help of other police departments in the state we were able to get quite a few of their names. And we got information from their own postings and through interactions with other police departments in Florida. So we got a really good intel packet together.

And then two days after the speedway incident, a GDL member who was stalking Orthodox Jews outside a synagogue in LA opened fire, wounding two. And I said afterwards, We need to put a call out to our entire community and we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, as this is not going to happen here. I reached out to all our faith leaders, I reached out to our community, and I said I’m holding a press conference and I’d love for you to come. We’re going to show you what this group is all about. We’re going to identify them individually and I’m going to tell you about their criminal histories.

Vermin like this don’t like the sunshine. Sunshine is a great disinfectant and they don’t like that. So when you start putting their photos up, their employers see it, their family sees it, and other people see who they are. And a lot of people wilt when that happens. And then, of course, as I expected, the threats started to roll in.

Wexler: They threatened you personally?

Mike Chitwood: Yes, the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange was monitoring all this stuff and said, just as an FYI, this is what’s in their chat rooms, because the GDL did a broadcast about me. They have a YouTube channel. So the FBI and State Attorney’s Office began an investigation into these threats, including a threat to put a bullet in the back of my head to shut me up. The other threats were, we can dox him and destroy his career and make him unelectable. Let’s figure out a way to get into his computer and plant child porn.

They “swatted” my parents—called in and gave my parents’ address, said the residents there were dead and they wanted the cops to come so they could kill them too before killing themselves. Fortunately for me, the dispatchers were on the ball and knew the address was for the sheriff's parents’ home so they called first. So it didn’t turn into a big episode. But that’s where we're at.

Wexler: So you called the press conference. Let’s be honest, you were pretty angry that day, weren’t you? And what did you say?

Mike Chitwood: I felt that my home had been invaded, that the sanctity of our county was invaded. We have our problems here, like every other place, but there’s also a lot of unity here. And a lot of the people who ended up with that literature on their lawn are my friends—I go food shopping with them, I go to their synagogue and speak and put on safety classes. And I know that we’re living in fear, and I said, we’ve got to come out and call them what they are: cowardly scumbags who use the cover of darkness and anonymity to further their agenda.

The only way you can beat this is to have unity and to have sunshine. And the unity was the fact that you had everybody imaginable up there at that podium at that press conference. You had Democrats and Republicans, Jews standing next to Muslims next to non-believers, Black and white and brown. Everybody that represents the demographics of Volusia County was there to send the message. And then I went through the GDL one by one: here’s his criminal history, let’s look at him in action.

And I said, “You want to put a bullet in my head, come and get me. Here I am. I’m very public. You want to dox me or hack me, let’s see it.”

Sheriff Mike Chitwood speaking at the press conference

Wexler: What’s been the reaction from the community and from fellow law enforcement?

Mike Chitwood: I've gotten some really good feedback from chiefs and sheriffs from around the country, who applauded that we’ve taken such an aggressive line and really drawn a line in the sand.

Wexler: What’s your advice to other chiefs and sheriffs who might encounter this situation?

Mike Chitwood: Unite your community and your law enforcement and stand there and be vocal and push back. Don’t hide anything: show what they are, show them in action, show their criminal histories and stand shoulder to shoulder with your community. Because today their target was Jews, but the next one could be Blacks, or the gay community. You know that line from the Lutheran pastor in World War II? First they came for the socialists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. And when they came for me there was no one left to speak for me.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mike Chitwood: At the press conference I said there are these scumbags, and then there are the people who are trying to worship the way they want to worship. Unlike what you may have heard before, there aren’t good people on both sides when these things happen.


And here’s my conversation with Tom:

Chuck Wexler: I’ve known you a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you as upset as you were this week. What made you so upset?

Tom Manger: My folks, especially those who were here on January 6th, went through one of the worst days a cop could go through. We’ve all been in fights or had struggles, that sort of thing. But not a fight that lasted four hours. So I know how this department hurt after January 6th, and to have somebody use that video to portray an absolutely false narrative of what went on that day was hurtful to my folks.

I knew they’d be hurting and angry. They took a lot of criticism and went through a lot of negative stuff right after January 6th. And it’s almost like it just never stops. They’re going through it again and again.

So that’s why I sent this internal letter to every one of my employees. I wanted to express that I understood how painful this could be.

Wexler: And could you describe specifically what Tucker Carlson said on his show that upset you?

Tom Manger: He said this was not an insurrection and most of them were peaceful tourists who revered the Capitol. He showed a couple people walking down the hallway looking at some display, like tourists might, as if that was representative of what went on that day.

And they found about ten seconds of video of [Officer Brian] Sicknick down in what we call “the crypt.” Officer Sicknick has his helmet on and is clearly motioning for people to go in one direction. Carlson said, “See, he was fine. He looks very vigorous and looks like he’s doing fine there.” He said, “All the media has accused the people who were there of killing him.” The guy was viciously assaulted. He went back to his office hours later and collapsed, and then he died the next day. Carlson never talked about the fact that he died the next day. He just talked about how there’s this narrative how he was killed by the rioters but he looks fine here. How disrespectful is that! And how hurtful to his family. We spoke with Officer Sicknick’s mother the next day, and it was just like her son was being killed all over again. The pain that caused her was just awful. And I knew a lot of my officers, who loved and respected Brian, would feel the same way.


Chief Tom Manger testifying before Congress

Wexler: It’s rare for the U.S. Capitol police chief to speak out like this, isn’t it?

Tom Manger: This is a position where you’re always finding yourself in the middle of partisan political situations. And the only way you survive in that job is to be strictly nonpartisan and stay away from politics. And yet, you get caught up in it just about every day.

There are times when a lot of police chiefs would just sort of suffer in silence. But in this case, I felt that it was so beyond any kind of decency. It was so beyond outrageous in its mischaracterization of what went on that day that I had to speak out. And, as it turns out, people on both sides of the aisle were very supportive of what I said.

Wexler: What was the reception among your officers?

Tom Manger: I received really nice feedback from them. From high-ranking officials to first-line supervisors to officers, I got a lot of messages back telling me how much they appreciated my message. And it was an internal message, but it was leaked to the press. So that’s how my message was really publicized, which prompted feedback from folks outside [the department]. I then got a lot of positive feedback from the public as well. But that’s not what I was looking for. I was just trying to express outrage on behalf of my officers.


Thanks to Tom and Mike for having the courage to step up and make your voice heard—perfect examples of leadership when it makes a difference.