After passing an initial test, the deputies are never formally tested again for their fitness. The union doesn’t allow it.
Update: The story text was replaced to reflect the edited version that appears in print in the Nov. 17 edition.
It was sunny and peaceful outside the Flagler County Courthouse on the morning of Nov. 10, until the door flew open and a man ran out, apparently fleeing from the law.
Deputy Austin Chewning followed after the man, who was later identified as 42-year-old Sean Monti. Monti has been arrested several times in the past, and this time he was wanted on a domestic violence charge: His live-in girlfriend had told deputies that Monti had “grabbed her, picked her up in the air, and threw her down on the tile floor” — breaking her wrist, she said — in front of the couple’s 7-year-old son. On the morning of Nov. 10, Monti escaped from Chewning near the elevator inside the courthouse when he was being handcuffed.
Chewning yelled at Monti to stop, but Monti didn’t listen, and it became a footrace. But, as as Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jim Troiano said, Chewning’s physique resembles that of a lineman on a football team.
“There was no footrace,” Troiano said. “(Monti) looked like he could run a little bit.”
I happened to be an eyewitness to the scene, and I observed that as he continued his pursuit, Chewning raised his Taser and pointed and shouted at Monti, but the distance widened quickly. Chewning put down his Taser and radioed for help, then continued the chase, loaded with his normal gear.
Upon reaching the steps partway across the courtyard, Monti leaped down and continued sprinting toward State Road 100. A few seconds later, Chewning arrived at the steps and lost some momentum as he descended. By then, there was no hope of getting close enough to Monti to apprehend him.
Consequences of the escape
Help soon arrived, thanks to Chewning’s alert. Sirens sounded, and multiple cruisers congregated across the street near the Bunnell water tower to search for Monti.
Out of my view, a Bunnell employee saw Monti run up the stairs to the rear water filtration tank, and Monti was later found inside the tank. He was pulled out, arrested and charged with domestic aggravated battery, burglary of an occupied structure, criminal mischief and resisting arrest without violence, according to the arrest affidavit. Chewning himself was on the scene and helped with the arrest, Troiano said.
Bunnell City Manager Dan Davis told deputies that Monti’s plunge into the water tank required workers to drain and flush all four of the plant’s 9,000-gallon tanks, and bring in 72,000 gallons of fresh water to replace the water. The water had been contaminated because, according to Troiano, Monti had been bleeding.
The draining was expected to cost less than $1,500, but there could be an additional $1,000 for labor and chemicals. Davis told the Sheriff’s Office that the water supply had not been compromised: The water in the tanks were in the treatment process, and the water was not yet being delivered.
Danger of footraces
If it had been a different deputy chasing after Monti, the result might not have been any different. After all, Monti had a head start and appeared to be a strong runner. Chewning declined to comment for this story.
“The bottom line is, all of our deputies should be able to run,” Troiano said. “If we saw an issue where he couldn’t perform, then of course that’s something that we would evaluate, but we have no indication that (Chewning) couldn’t perform or do the job as required.”
Chewning followed appropriate training to call for backup, and Troiano pointed out that no deputy is going to win every footrace. Indeed, a footrace is dangerous, as Sheriff-elect Rick Staly well knows. He said, “The last foot chase I was in, I was shot.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement requires a written test but not a physical test to become a law enforcement officer; anything related to physical fitness is left up to the individual agencies.
When a deputy is hired in Flagler County, he or she is given a physical fitness test. (See the sidebar on the right.) After passing the test, the deputies are never formally tested again for their fitness. The union doesn’t allow it.
Why the union opposes fitness tests
Mike Scudiero is the communications director with Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union of which many Flagler County deputies are members.
He said that of the two-dozen agencies represented by the PBA, five or 10 of them have fitness tests that can be administered after hiring, but most, like Flagler County, don’t. Even for the agencies that do have tests, Scudiero said, “They’re usually pretty minimal.”
Why would the union oppose fitness tests?
“Overall, conceptually, yes, we want everyone to be able to back up their fellow employees,” Scudiero said. “And everybody wants to make sure that when they radio out for assistance as an officer, someone’s coming that can help them. But we want to be careful about who administers these type of things. What standard are you going to use and who decides who passes or fails? It can get a little tricky.”
One concern, he said, is that a supervisor could devise a fitness test that is designed to make deputies fail and lose their jobs.
Scudiero said that physical fitness did not come up in the most recently negotiated contract, which saw deputies get a 4% raise.
Troiano said that although there are no formal tests, there are checks and balances with regard to deputies’ fitness.
“They’re hired, and once that testing is over with, it’s the supervisor’s responsibility … to evaluate that deputy,” he said. “If other employees see issues, they’re required to report it.”
A medical exam can be required by the Sheriff’s Office if it is suspected that a deputy’s mental or physical health is an issue.
“Are our deputy sheriffs in shape?” Troiano said. “They’re all able to do the job professionally.”
Rick Staly is beginning the transition process as he becomes the new sheriff after Jan. 1.
Does he believe a fitness test would make the community safer?
“I think the community is safe,” he said. “I want to make sure that our employees are healthy.”
He is planning to begin a program called Work Out With the Sheriff, in which he would hit the gym alongside employees.
“The mandate in annual fitness testing is a union matter,” he said. “I’d like to try the soft approach first and see if the encouragement works out, before we try to go down as a disciplinary process, because that’s what it ultimately comes down to.”
Jonathan Simmons contributed to this report.