DAYTONA BEACH – Volusia Sheriff Mike Chitwood has barred the Daytona Beach News-Journal from press conferences in light of what he considers unfair coverage. A spokesman for the Volusia Sheriff’s Office has also confirmed in communications to Editor-in-Chief John Dunbar that comment requests to the paper would now be declined by default.
The dispute between the two began when Chitwood publicly lashed out at the News-Journal for a question asked by one of their reporters, Frank Fernandez. The story concerned an 11-year-old girl who’d allegedly placed a false 911 call. She was arrested by VSO deputies, handcuffed, and held at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Daytona. Fernandez contacted the VSO with a comment request, and Chitwood shared the question to his personal social media pages. The question read: “I spoke with a defense attorney not involved in the Ava Langone case who said that it was a misuse of discretion by law enforcement to put 11-year-old Ava Langone in handcuffs and arrest her and keep her in custody. He said it was cause trauma in her life.” He then prompted either Chitwood or the VSO for a response.
“This is at least the third recent example of this reporter […] working as the mouthpiece of some defense attorney who thinks he should run the Sheriff’s Office,” Chitwood said, not giving examples of the other instances in question. “There’s a time and place for discretion, but actions have consequences.” His response was pointedly personal in its criticism of a reporter who, in the email Chitwood had produced, was merely citing the statement of another individual. It also made use of the massive social media following Chitwood has amassed in his time as sheriff, possibly an intentional angle to captivate public opinion before Fernandez’s story could run.
Another flare-up occurred after the September verdict in the highly-publicized trial of Othal Wallace, the man accused of murdering Daytona Beach Police Officer Jason Raynor. The jury in Wallace’s trial handed down a manslaughter conviction, significantly less severe than the murder conviction many in and around Volusia County’s law enforcement community had been hoping for. Chitwood in particular expressed his frustrations, saying the verdict was “a slap in the face of everyone who puts on a uniform”. Furthermore, he said it shook his faith in juries more than ever before.
This reaction was covered by the News-Journal, as was a response by a member of Wallace’s defense team. “Sheriff Chitwood is certainly free to disagree with the jury’s verdict,” said defense attorney Allison Ferber Miller, “but to disparage the work of the jurors and the jurors themselves, frankly, to me, is un-American.” A full story was dedicated to this exchange, which drew Chitwood’s ire not just to Miller, but to the News-Journal.
“I really don’t care what Allison Ferber Miller has to say in the latest BS report by the Daytona Beach News-Journal defense attorney mouthpiece Frank Fernandez,” Chitwood said as reported by the News-Journal. “I don’t take Frank Fernandez’s calls or give him quotes for his BS stories anymore, but feel free to let him know what you think.”
At this point, News-Journal Editor John Dunbar took matters into his own hands. Publishing an opinion column about Chitwood’s recent attacks, Dunbar criticized the sheriff for taking his gripes public before having a conversation with him, and for engaging in what he called ‘bullying’, ‘creating a scapegoat’, and making false accusations. Dunbar even raised the issue of potential threats of violence against his staff that could be made by loyal supporters of Chitwood (though brazen lawlessness from a sheriff’s own fan club would be particularly ironic). To that, Chitwood responded in a statement republished by the News-Journal.
“I have the right to speak my mind just like anybody else in America,” Chitwood began. He went on to frame Miller’s ‘un-American’ comment as something the News-Journal actively sanctioned, as opposed to an original statement reported matter-of-factly. “Those of us who end up under the media spotlight are expected to lay prostrate, play our part and take whatever’s coming,” Chitwood continued. “That won’t be me. I don’t expect glowing positive coverage of every incident or issue, but I can tell the difference between a tough story and a slanted one.”
He went on to offer to refer any employee of the News-Journal who would potentially be threatened to an FBI agent, and encouraged Dunbar to report him to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement if he felt the sheriff himself was responsible. Of course, a hypothetical indirect provocation would be seen differently than a direct threat, legally speaking. But Chitwood’s point stands. With his parting jab he seemed to take aim at both Fernandez and Dunbar: “We need […] less of the type who believe in accountability for everyone but themselves.”
That brings things to where they stand as of Tuesday: the News-Journal is disinvited from Volusia Sheriff’s Office press conferences and placed on a de-facto embargo of official comment from Chitwood. Volusia Sheriff’s Office spokesman Andrew Gant declined comment beyond what’s already known, but Dunbar elaborated on his reaction to the ordeal.
“The sheriff’s disinvitation to press conferences and his decision not to comment for our stories is disappointing,” Dunbar said. “It’s going to make it tougher to do our jobs, yes, but I worry more about what happens in an emergency, like a hurricane. We need to work together.”
He also called Chitwood’s criticisms of Fernandez “utter nonsense”, and questioned Chitwood’s ability to differentiate between the reporter and the information being reported. As for Chitwood’s statement on accountability, Dunbar was further perplexed. “That’s just insulting and wrong,” he said. “Again, I can’t figure what he’s referring to.”
Whether this is the last act of hostility between the Volusia Sheriff’s Office and Daytona Beach News-Journal remains to be seen. It’s not clear what would happen if the News-Journal continues to show up to press conferences, as it’s reasonable to expect they will. That will be up to the discretion of Chitwood to handle as he sees fit, or otherwise. But in any case, a law enforcement agency and widely-consumed news outlet having anything less than a functional, professional relationship is unlikely to benefit the residents of the county in question.