Who’s in charge of the truth? Deputies are reporters, too

The following was first published March 8, on Page 2 of the Palm Coast Observer.
By: 
Mar. 29, 2018

March 29, 2018

Dear Reader,

At the Hammock Observer, our commitment to you is to publish the facts. You are receiving this letter because you are on the Hammock Observer’s circulation list. We felt it was necessary to send this letter to correct a previous story and to clarify how we got the story wrong.

Thank you for reading.

Brian McMillan

editor@palmcoastobserver.com

Who’s in charge of the truth? Deputies are reporters, too

BRIAN MCMILLAN

EXECUTIVE EDITOR

(Note:  The following was first published March 8, on Page 2 of the Palm Coast Observer.)

In response to a front-page story in the February 2018 edition of our bimonthly Hammock Observer, I received several emails and two phone calls saying the story was “slanted,” “sloppy,” “slanderous,” and “extremely offensive,” among other things. I felt bad that readers who were bothered by the news, but I knew we had followed our normal process to get it: Jonathan Simmons, an award-winning journalist, had requested an incident report from the Sheriff’s Office and had written a story using the deputy’s investigation.

The story begins with these two paragraphs:

“In a racially charged incident at Island Estates on Jan. 6, residents accused teens arriving for a mixed-race teenage boy’s birthday party of vandalizing Christmas decorations — without evidence, according to an investigating Sheriff’s Office deputy. Then the residents berated and swore at deputies for refusing to hand over the children’s personal information.

“The boy’s mother, who is white, told deputies that her husband is black and that she’d repeatedly had problems with ‘racist neighbors’ who’d profiled her two mixed-race sons. When a deputy told the people who accused the kids that there was no evidence the kids had anything to do with the vandalism, one of them told the deputy, ‘That’s what profiling is for,’ and laughed.”

In the past week, I have spent hours digging through all the available reports, studying body cam video, meeting with Sheriff’s Office officials, and talking to people directly and indirectly involved with the incident, and as a result I have concluded that our normal process failed us this time. Unfortunately, it appears that the deputy’s report had factual errors and was slanted toward a racial interpretation of the incident. I now believe race had nothing to do with it.

On a broader scale, this exercise has also raised questions in my mind about the general practice around the United States for newspapers to report on crimes in the community when the only sources used by reporters are the recollections of the deputies themselves, sometimes filtered through a police chief or public information officer.

If reporters can’t trust a deputy’s report, what can we trust?

 

STANDARD PROCEDURE

 

On March 5, I looked up the most recent crime stories published by FlaglerLive.com, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Sun-Times. Each of those stories was littered with facts — each followed by phrases like this: “according to a news release from the Sheriff’s Office,” or “police said.”  It’s standard procedure.

When it comes to crime reporting, law enforcement accounts are the public record. They are used in prosecutions. They are viewed as The Truth. Even if new information contradicts a report, the first report is not discarded. In that case, “We’ll do a supplemental report,” Flagler County Undersheriff Jack Bisland told me on March 2. “We don’t change official records.”

 

IN ISLAND ESTATES

 

At 8:45 p.m. on Jan. 6, a call came to the Sheriff’s Office: A woman said her husband was “verbal” with five teenagers on Island Estates Parkway. The woman said she was “trying to separate the husband from the kids,” whom she believes “were knocking over her neighbors ornaments in the yard.”

Deputy Sarah Scalia and Deputy Seth Green arrived at the scene at 8:57 p.m., in Hammock Dunes.

Scalia writes that she and Green met Ralph Dumke and his wife, Maria, who is presumably the one who called the Sheriff’s Office. The Dumkes also live on Island Estates Parkway and followed the teenagers 17 lots to the north, where the teens parked at another home. The reason for following them is key to the interpretation of the incident.

“Mr. Dumke stated he thought the juveniles were damaging his neighbors’ property because they were walking in the grass,” Scalia reports. “It should be noted that there are no sidewalks in the community.”

In other words, Scalia felt that the complaint of walking in the grass was not of great concern. After all, where are the juveniles supposed to walk if there are no sidewalks?

Dumke met with me in my office on March 1 to give his side of the story. He said that he didn’t just see them walking in the grass; he saw at least one teenager running out of the yard of his next-door neighbors, the Davises. He also said he saw at least one running out of a neighboring vacant lot.

The video recorded by Scalia’s body camera supports what Dumke told me. His wife, Maria, says, “One was running out of (the Davises’ lot), where the decorations were down. One kid coming out of the woods on the left, one kid coming out of (the Davises’ lot).”

For some reason, Scalia wrote in her report that the juveniles were “walking in the grass,” not that they were running.

Next, Scalia and Green meet Paulette Varol, who is the mother of two of the teenagers. Varol is wrapped in a blanket and appears upset. On video, she tells the deputies, “Every time the kids take a walk in this neighborhood, someone complains. It’s ridiculous.”

Deputy Green responds: “That’s not the issue. I guess they were damaging some Christmas ornaments in someone’s yard down the street.”

“I don’t believe that,” Varol says.

Scalia says, “There are several complaints, not just one person.” It’s unclear what she means by “several complaints,” but it appears that she is trying to persuade Varol to take the accusation more seriously.

Varol then says it’s cold, and she invites the deputies inside. There, the video stops: It’s not public record to know what goes on in someone’s home.

 

‘RACIST NEIGHBORS’?

 

But it was inside the home that Scalia and Green say they were told that Varol has had “issues in the past with her neighbors, and she believed she was being targeted by them due to racism.” Her sons “both stated they have had issues with ‘racist neighbors’ in the past,” Scalia writes.

It is among these “indoor” paragraphs that Scalia includes this sentence: “Ms. Varol is married to an African American.”

That’s what led Jonathan Simmons to include this in his report for the Hammock Observer: “Her husband is black.”

The only problem with all that is, Varol’s husband is not black. A source who knows the family well said he’s white and showed me a photo of him. Paulette Varol did not respond to a phone call or a text with a request for verification. Moreover, the handling of the case is “under review” by the Sheriff’s Office, according to Chief Mark Strobridge, and so I was not able to speak with Scalia.

When Scalia left the home, she spoke again with the Dumkes, and reports: “Mrs. Dumke told me that they just saw the juveniles walking in the street and they did not see any juveniles on anyone’s property.” The video reveals the opposite: Mrs. Dumke said, “One was running out of (the Davises’ lot).”

Then, when the teens and the Varols were all inside the house, Jim and Dana Davis arrived. They are the owners of the Christmas reindeer that had been damaged 17 lots to the south. Jim Davis was upset with the deputies for not investigating the vandalism.

“Mr. Davis told Deputy Green that he wanted to go talk to ‘those a--h----.’ Deputy Green told Mr. Davis that he could not do that right now. Deputy Green continued to speak to Mr. Davis and at some point Mr. Davis told Deputy Green, ‘That’s what profiling is for,’ and Mr. Davis began to laugh.”

If Scalia had listened to Green’s body cam video when she was preparing her official report, she would have heard the full conversation between Green and Jim Davis. It goes like this:

Davis: Well, let me go talk to these a--h----.

Green: Hang on for a minute. Don’t go antagonize the situation.

Davis: (Pause) It’s obvious the old farts aren’t out here tearing it up.

Deputy: I understand that, but we can’t just go run into a house full of kids and blame them, either. That’s what we’re here for.

Davis: Well, that’s what profiling is for. (Laughs) So what are we going to do?

In the video, it appears to me that Davis is joking about profiling based on age — not race. Meanwhile, Scalia was communicating with someone else about the case, and she only heard Davis raise his voice slightly and say the profiling line. She may have assumed it was evidence to back up the Varols’ comments about racist neighbors.

But Dana Davis told me on March 1 that neither she nor her husband  knew the Varols and had not known what race they were. As Davis left my office, she even said, “And actually, someone told me that Mr. Varol was white, not black.” We both shrugged.

 

NOW WHAT?

 

Just as I must apologize to the Davises and the Dumkes — and to the rest of the Hammock Observer’s circulation — for publishing a story that is not accurate, I also want to apologize to Deputy Scalia. This column is not written in a spirit of blame against her; it is written with the intent that we consider a better way.

According to Strobridge, Scalia has received just four hours of training on report writing since police academy. When Sheriff Rick Staly was elected, he increased those training hours to 16, but Scalia was hired under the previous administration.

Considering deputies write as many as four or five reports per 12-hour shift, and considering those reports are used as evidence to put people in jail, the training should be much more substantial still. Deputies are, whether we want to admit it or not, the primary crime reporters in this country, and they should be trained like reporters.

Deputies need to be given enough time to consult their body cam videos. Imagine if a news reporter conducted several interviews without taking notes and then tried to write the story from memory under time pressure — along with a few other reports at the end of a 12-hour shift?

Deputies’ shift supervisors are essentially the editors, and they need to be given time to occasionally watch body cam footage themselves to make sure reports are accurate.

I am reassured that the Sheriff’s Office is taking this matter seriously. As Strobridge said, “We have to get it right 100% of the time. Lives are at stake in our case.”

Also, just so the Dumkes and Davises are aware: The Sheriff’s Office confirmed on March 6 that an anonymous tip had been called in, naming suspects in reference to some teens vandalizing yards in the neighborhood on Jan. 6.

Email Brian McMillan at editor@palmcoastobserver.com.