CNN – Law enforcement officials in central Florida have denied accusations of racism after several people were arrested when police tried to disrupt a block party of approximately 3,000 over the weekend.
Participants who spoke to local media said law enforcement's response to the gathering in the city of Deland was an instance of racial bias and disproportionate policing of black communities.
Some police officers were also injured, according to Volusia County officials. Deland is about 22 miles from Daytona Beach.
The block party advertised on social media last week started on Saturday afternoon and while police say daytime festivities were relatively uneventful, "things started getting out of hand as day turned to night," according to a statement released by Volusia County Sheriff's Office (VCSO).
In aerial footage released by VCSO, large crowds of mostly black people are seen gathered on neighborhood streets and greenspaces. Officers are heard talking over the video, strategizing how they can best manage and "break-up" the large crowds gathered in DeLand.
"I think they're running it until 10, so, just so we don't have a big problem, let's let them run it until 10 as long as they behave," one officer is heard saying over the video. Neither the city of DeLand, nor the county of Volusia, had issued a permit for the block party as it started on private property, DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger said in a news conference Monday.
In a statement on Twitter on Monday, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said, "I don't accept the accusations that we're racists, or that our actions Saturday were racially motivated. It's not true, and it's not a fair conclusion from the video."
Around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, a passenger in a vehicle pointed a rifle or shotgun out of an open window, in the direction of a deputy and pedestrians gathered at a gas station, the statement by VCSO reads.
Shortly after midnight, police say deputies walking through the block party witnessed a firearm exchange between two men. A deputy approached the men commanding them to drop the gun, and one of the men ran away, according to VCSO's statement. The deputy ran after the man. The suspect allegedly threw the gun and kept running, but he was taken to the ground nearby, the statement reads.
Deputies recovered the firearm and he was charged with two counts of possession of a weapon/ammunition by a convicted felon, tampering with evidence, inciting a riot and resisting an officer without violence. The other individual police say was in the firearm exchange, was arrested on many of the same charges, with the exception of tampering with evidence. He was also charged with possession of a concealed firearm.
After the two arrests, VCSO says that two deputies were hit with a cup of alcohol and while the person who threw it was being taken into custody, one of the deputies was sucker punched by another male subject who immediately fled the area. Additionally, another deputy and a DeLand police officer were hit with a bar stool and mason jar by other members of the crowd who immediately also fled, according to a statement by VCSO. Crowds gathered in the neighborhood continued to throw glass bottles at patrol vehicles in the street while arrests were being made, the statement adds.
One deputy sustained a minor knee injury and a DeLand police officer had a minor head injury when he was hit with the jar, VCSO said in a statement.
"Not only was this a public safety issue, but it was a matter of public health," Chief Umberger said, "no one should be getting together in large groups of 50 or more as of today under any circumstances in accordance with the order by Governor DeSantis."
"While we may be reopening different parts of the city, county and state, no one should be having any large gatherings until the governor says it's safe to do so," Chief Umberger added.
The West Volusia Beacon newspaper published comments from unnamed people they described as participants in the gathering, and reported that many were frustrated with the police response to the gathering. "Why do they try to take our humanity? Our pride? It's not fair to us -- we're all human," one unnamed woman is quoted as saying.
CNN was not independently able to verify the comments.
When asked why the police didn't "put the kibosh" on the party from the beginning when they first learned about it the preceding Wednesday, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said, "Look at anywhere else in the state of Florida, these events are occurring, so, you're not going to put the kibosh on it because another one is going to pop up somewhere else."
When asked whether the party was against the law and whether maintaining social distancing was enforceable, Chitwood referred to unsuccessful social distancing arrests made in New York early on during the pandemic.
"It's a personal responsibility (social distancing), it's not law enforcement's job to enforce quote unquote social distancing," Chitwood responded during Monday's news conference.
"Our officers, we've told them, don't get in the middle of trying to enforce social distancing. You talk about strained community relations with police, now we're going to tell people they can't stand—you're five feet apart, you're not six—we really need to take a step back and think it through," Chief Umberger said.
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