The response of the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and DeLand Police Department to a block party in southwest DeLand had nothing to do with the African American ethnicity of most of the partygoers, DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger said.
Umberger acknowledged, however, that many of the partygoers thought it did.
“While this incident has nothing to do with race, and has more to do with public safety and law and order, it is clear from the body-cam video that I have seen — as I am sure all of you have seen — that in this incident there continues to be some racial tension between the Spring Hill community and law enforcement,” Umberger said.
On May 16, a block party with an estimated 3,000 attendees took place on Lisbon Parkway from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. Umberger described that organized party as peaceful.
Conflict arose once the block party was over. An afterparty, which Umberger referred to as a “rolling block party,” moved from one place to another, at first gathering at a gasoline station, then a parking lot, then another gas station and the C-Store DeLand convenience store, before ending in the 1200 block of South Delaware Avenue. An estimated 1,500 people parked cars outside of regular parking spaces and proved difficult to disperse.
DeLand Police officers and sheriff’s deputies — on the scene, they said, because of concerns about traffic management and pedestrian safety — struggled to control the revelers.
When officers ordered the closure of the C-Store DeLand at the corner of Beresford and Adelle avenues, the store owner protested loudly and the crowd, including customers who had been kicked out of the store and others who were barred from entering, became riled up.
The Beacon was on the scene for part of the time and wrote about the incident, causing other news outlets from near and far to pick up the story, which in some cases was characterized as a racial conflict between African American partygoers and white police officers, and also sparked a discussion about the propriety of large gatherings during the pandemic.
On May 18, the DeLand Police Department and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office addressed the concerns at a joint press conference. The two agencies also worked to explain their response, which included eight arrests and one incident of a man being Tased after officers spotted a handgun in the crowd.
Like the C-Store DeLand closing, the Taser use fueled a strong reaction from the afterparty crowd, which appeared to be unaware that the appearance of a gun passed between crowd members had been the reason. Officers had glasses of alcohol thrown at them, and one officer was hit with a bar stool.
Much of the crowd was also likely unaware that, according to the Sheriff’s Office, around 10:30 p.m., a passenger in a vehicle had pointed a rifle or shotgun out of an open window, in the direction of a deputy and pedestrians gathered at a gas station at Beresford and Spring Garden avenues. The vehicle continued northbound on Spring Garden at a high rate of speed. Deputies and police searched for the vehicle with negative results.
“I think the thing that initially started was, a deputy had a rifle pointed at him. And that’s when, I think, the whole dynamic changed,” Umberger said.
Eventually, there was an all-county call over the radio, and departments from other jurisdictions responded. Edgewater, Ormond, Daytona Beach and Orange City were among the cities who sent officers to the area.
Along with the seven arrests made by the sheriff’s office, the DeLand Police Department also arrested one person for throwing a Mason jar at an officer's head. The officer sustained a mild injury, the department said.
As for the closing of C-Store, Umberger said it was due to the large crowd congregating there.
“So my supervisor made the call — he didn’t know, you know, he was at a wit’s end; he couldn’t move anybody,” Umberger said.
Vadricka Gordon, owner of the C-Store, told The Beacon she didn’t understand why police were ordering her to close the store, which had sat vacant for five years before she reopened it recently.
"We're proud to be there, proud to be a black-owned business for the community. I just want to know how to prevent this from happening again going forward," Gordon said.
The VCSO released footage shot from the Air One helicopter and officers’ body cameras. Sheriff Mike Chitwood also posted on his Facebook page on Sunday.
“Our response to last night's events in DeLand was not about race. It's about public safety, and I can't believe the slant I'm reading today in The West Volusia Beacon,” Chitwood wrote, in part.
The Sheriff’s Office pulled quotes from The Beacon’s story that featured one partygoer’s opinion that the law-enforcement response was racially motivated, and featured those quotes on its Facebook page.
Both law-enforcement leaders talked about how their agencies have tried to bridge the racial divide. Another divide was also being healed at the press conference. Umberger and Chitwood had been feuding in recent days over DeLand’s handling of a traffic stop of a man who was, hours later, shot by deputies at his home in Deltona.
Umberger listed the ways in which the DeLand Police Department has tried to bridge the racial divide, including establishing a police advisory council, and requiring officers to be trained in implicit bias, fairness and impartiality.
“We’re clearly not there yet,” Umberger said. To that end, the chief said he plans to reestablish a dialogue with the Concerned Clergy Coalition, a group of mostly African American religious leaders.
The chief added, “As everyone knows, we have had years and years of problems. And we are trying to do the best that we can.”
Sheriff Chitwood in particular was clearly frustrated by the coverage of the afterparty, saying he was appalled “the race card” was being played. He was also frustrated that The Beacon did not call him before publishing its story.
The newspaper did contact a VCSO spokesman, who provided information for the story, and reached out to the DeLand Police Department without success Sunday morning.
“In American society, racism, sexism, bigotry, and hatred exist,” Chitwood said. “I understand some of the tensions that are out there in the community. But from where I sit, and what I watch on that video, has nothing to do with race — it has to do with lawlessness.”
Volusia County Council Member Barb Girtman, who is African American and whose district includes the Spring Hill area, also spoke at the press conference, urging the community to find a positive way forward.
“What I look forward to as your council for District 1, and also as an officer within the NAACP for West Volusia — we need to have those conversations,” Girtman said. “It really matters that we address this in a different way. These block parties are going to continue to happen; how do they need to happen for the future is what we’ve got to talk about.”
Girtman continued, “How do we manage this better? That’s the conversation we need to happen. … I just wanted to say thank you, but also let’s move forward in a positive way.”
Both lawmen said efforts to disperse the crowd were about safety, not about the coronavirus pandemic or social-distancing guidelines.
Although large gatherings are discouraged during the COVID-19 outbreak, they are not against the law. Both Umberger and Chitwood were clear that the police would not enforce social distancing.
“It’s a personal responsibility. It’s not law enforcement’s job to enforce quote-unquote, social distancing.” Chitwood said.
He noted large groups have been gathering against Department of Health recommendations in other areas of the county.
This story was updated May 20 to add a sentence that appears in the print edition.