How Safe Are We In East Central Florida?

Headline Surfer video and photos by Henry Frederick / Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma is interviewed in this multimedia presentation highlighting a triple-murder-suicide carried out by Henry Brown who killed his estranged wife and their two small kids in separate incidents on the same day before killing himself on April 17, 2016, a day the lawman will never forget. The still photos above focus on Mike Chitwood, the decade-long police chief in Daytona who ran for sheriff of Volusia County in 2016 and won, taking office in 2017. 
 
How Safe Are We? / Headline SurferBy HENRY FREDERICK
Headline Surfer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Never in his worst nightmare did Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett ever dream he'd make national headlines of his own 3 1/2 years after a jury in Seminole County acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

But that's exactly what happened when Sanford's mayor was robbed at gunpoint of his wallet and carjacked.

"Being a victim of a crime is unnerving, yet it was reassuring to witness both speed and diligence from the Sanford Police Department," Triplett told Headline Surfer. "This wasn't something I expected I would find myself in which was pretty frightening."

Still, though, Triplett thinks Sanford is a relatively safe city despite what happened to him, which he sees as an isolated incident and not reflective of daily life in this quaint tourism city in Seminole County, about 25 miles northeast of Orlando and just under 40 miles southwest of Daytona Beach.

Which brings us to the question: How safe are we in East Central Florida?

When asked to venture a guess as to which of the three cities along the tourism stretch of the I-4 corridor is the most dangerous over the past half-decade, Triplett said, "It has to be Orlando. After all, it is the biggest of the three cities and Orlando had the Pulse nightclub massacre."

And asked which of the three cities he believed was likely the safest during the same period of time, Triplett answered, "I may be partial, but I would say its Sanford. Daytona seems to be in the news a lot more than here."

There is no right or wrong answer as to which city is the most dangerous or the safest, but statistically speaking when crunching stats for violent crimes, Daytona Beach has proven itself a more dangerous a city to live in than Orlando or Sanford, said Palmer Wilson, a law enforcement consultant who lives in New Smyrna Beach resident.

And while Sanford had the high profile Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case and Orlando the Pulse massacre, there hasn't been a  major crime in Daytona that has made national headlines in a decade or more and yet it is considered a more dangerous city to live in, Wilson said. 

"It's not the sensationalism of a crime situation that measures how safe or dangerous a city is as much as the frequency of violent crimes," said Wilson, a retired lieutenant with the Montgomery County (Md) Police Department. "Daytona has had more violent incidents more frequently and those figures add up over time."

Palmer Wilson, Law Enforcement consultant / Headline SurferThere is no right or wrong answer as to which city is the most dangerous or the safest, but statistically speaking when crunching stats for violent crimes, Daytona Beach has proven itself a more dangerous a city to live in than Orlando or Sanford, said Palmer Wilson, a law enforcement consultant who lives in New Smyrna Beach resident, shown here.

And while Sanford had the high profile Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case and Orlando the Pulse massacre, there hasn't been a  major crime in Daytona that has made national headlines in a decade or more and yet it is considered a more dangerous city to live in, Wilson said. 

"It's not the sensationalism of a crime situation that measures how safe or dangerous a city is as much as the frequency of violent crimes," said Wilson, a retired lieutenant with the Montgomery County (Md) Police Department. "Daytona has had more violent incidents more frequently and those figures add up over time."

Wilson said Daytona Beach has more tourism events than its counterparts in Sanford and Orland, most of them built into the city itself with annual events like Speedweeks that culminates with the Daytona 500, Bike Week, Spring Break, the Cole Zero 400 race in July, Biketoberfest in October and the Turkey Run during the extended Thanksgiving holiday weekend. 

"Some of these special events like the Daytona 500 and Bike Week can draw several hundred thousand visitors and with them, the criminal element looking to prey on unsuspecting visitors and locals alike," Wilson said, adding, "Consider the fact that Daytona was considered a home to two serial killers in Aileen Wuornos executed by lethal injection in 2002, and Gerald Spano four years earlier in the electric chair. That should tell you something about how long Daytona Beach has been entrenched in violent crime."

Daytona Beach has ranked among the Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the US six years in a row and as high as 20th in 2016, according to Neighborhood Scout, which crunches crime stats from several crime databases that take into account city-wide data as opposed to a police agency, which may be multi-jurisdictional or only cover part of a city.

In Daytona each, for example, there are multiple law enforcement agencies that compile crime stats, including the Daytona Beach Police Department, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office and the Volusia County Department of Beach Safety.  

Daytona Beach, with a population of 68,055, has ranked among Neighborhood Scout's Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities annually since 2012. Sanford, with a population of 59,317, made the annual Neighborhood Scout listing for the first time in 2018: The Seminole County city was ranked 97th and Daytona Beach 40th. Orlando, with a population of 280,257, did not make the listing.

Another factor in Daytona's dismal showing, law enforcement consultant Wilson said, is the leadership, noting the city's police department was led for a decade until November 2016, by then-Police Chief Mike Chitwood, who in his final year, ran for the Office of Volusia County Sheriff and won in the Aug. 26 primary, taking office Jan. 1, 2017. 

"The current sheriff, Mike Chitwood, has been a media favorite since he arrived in Daytona Beach and developed his signature name for those who have run afoul of the law, even if arrested and charged - Scumbag," Wilson said. "So the onus  has never really been on him because the TV stations in Orlando  count on his outrageous indictments of others for ratings and the newspapers for front page headlines to keep subscriptions up."

Jim Gillum, a retired sheriff from Pasco County, living in DeLand, who was among five candidates in the primary, concurred.

"Mike Chitwood is far more style and than he is about substance," Gillum said. Chitwood did not return numerous calls and messages for this story. Chitwood, who won the primary outright, succeeded Ben Johnson, who opted for retirement after 16 years as sheriff.

Craig Capri, a 25-year veteran of the Daytona Beach police force who moved up the ranks from patrol officer to chief of police with Chitwood moving to the VCSO, acknowledged "violent crime was pretty bad for many years" and still is, but we've made great strides in reducing it somewhat."

Since taking the helm in November 2016, as acting chief, before he was named the permanent chief by Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm two months later, Capri has put a premium on community policing and having his patrol cops interact more with residents in the neighborhoods, at shopping centers, outside the post office and other gathering places. 

"We want residents to feel like they're included and important," Capri said, "that we are there because we care."  

That concept of community policing with marked units crisscrossing neighborhoods and shopping centers is something the Seminole County Sheriff's Office began putting emphasis about five years ago, it's sheriff Dennis Lemma said.

"We started that philosophy of rolling down the window and saying hello to folks while driving by and when time permitting, parking the car and getting out and walking where there are concentrations of people," Lemma said. "It is an investment in time, which we feel is well worth it and our declining crime figures show it has worked. With new recruits coming on, it is important to keep the momentum going - important for our deputies in assigned patrols to get to know their residents and vice versa and build that community trust."

The one truly horrific example that irks Lemma, is the slaughter of a Casselberry from within on the night of April 17, 2016, when the patriarch, Henry Brown, estranged from his wife, Chericia Brown, hid in the trunk outside the Chilis restaurant in Lake Mary for her to come outside and then he pounced on her, stabbing her repeatedly, before running her over and a few bystanders trying to help her.

Brown then fled back to Casselberry where he picked up their two small children from a babysitter and drove back to east on I-4 to Seminole County Regional Hospital in hopes of finishing his wife off after learning through a TV news report that his wife had been transported there in critical condition. 

Brown never made it past the ER before a gunbattle broke out with cops and he fled back onto the interstate but didn't go very far having run over stop sticks. But before Sheriff's deputies and Sanford cops could move in, Brown fatally shot the children before killing himself.

And while many homicides are reactive, this wiping out of an entire family could have been prevented had a deputy assigned to monitor the Browns early on through an arrangement between the courts and law enforcement had done his job. The deputy, Chad Tavenner, was fired after an investigation. 

"It's just something that stays with you," said Lemma, a married man with two children.

As sensational and frightening as violent crime is nowadays, it's really not new, said George Kirkheim, Ph.D., a professor emeritus in criminology at Florida State University.

Kirkheim recalled a shocking crime in 1964 in which 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was repeatedly stabbed outside her Kew Gardens apartment and died when nobody came to her aid.

"The New York Timers reported a couple weeks later that 36 neighbors either saw or heard her screams for help, but did nothing," said Kirkheim, who in the early 1970s, gained fame as the professor who became a Tallahassee cop.

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Henry Frederick is publisher of Headline Surfer®, the award-winning 24/7 internet news outlet covering the Daytona Beach-Sanford-Orlando metro area via HeadlineSurfer.com for a decade now. A longtime cops & courts reporter focused on breaking news & investigative reporting, Frederick is among the Sunshine State's most prolific daily news reporters, having amassed dozens of journalism-industry awards in print anddigital platforms. Frederick is enrolled at Full Sail University in Winter Garden, FL, where he's three-fourths through the online Master of Arts program in New Media Journalism. His graduation is in August.