You could almost hear the Dragnet theme song as we waited at the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office’s Deltona substation as the clock ticked toward 2019.
This is the city. My name is Al. I wear civilian clothes, and I carry a notebook and a camera. My partner, Eli Witek, and I were waiting to meet with Sheriff Michael Chitwood for a ride.
This was the third such New Year’s thrill ride for me, and Eli’s first.
It was 11 o’clock. In a city such as Deltona, where fireworks complaints over the New Year’s and July Fourth periods are numerous, celebratory aerial artillery lit up the skies close to the VCSO’s district headquarters as we waited.
Some people, it seems, do have money to burn, and they have a real blast, even if their displays are illegal and annoy the neighbors.
Our driver appeared — none other than the sheriff himself in an unmarked car.
After we got in and fastened our seat belts, Chitwood told of a change in plans. Rather than surveying the streets of Deltona and scrambling to one fireworks call after another, Chitwood headed to DeLand, feeling there could be serious business that required his attention.
“It’s like fishing — you try to find a good spot,” he said, adding he wanted to check with some of the churches having Watch Night services.
Watch Night services are a combination revival and New Year’s Eve party — without alcohol, but offering a different sort of Spirit. Bible preaching combines with singing and even dancing in some congregations.
Chitwood expressed concerns about a repeat of what happened last year, when a bullet penetrated a window at Antioch Freewill Baptist Church in DeLand, while parishioners were inside.
The bullet, it was later determined, was probably stray celebratory gunfire — but potentially deadly, nevertheless. Chitwood recalled a gunshot into the air one New Year’s Eve while he was working as a police officer in Philadelphia several years ago.
“The bullet went up and came down on the head of a kid, and it paralyzed him,” Chitwood said. The location of the assailant could not be discerned.
As we rode to DeLand, there were calls on the 800-megahertz radio. Many dealt with traffic stops made by deputies and DeLand police, along with reports of pesky private fireworks shows.
Going into the sanctuaries of four churches, Chitwood was readily recognized and welcomed.
“Just checking,” he told pastors and laymen, before exiting to visit another church in session.
The visit to Greater Union First Baptist Church included an invitation from Pastor Troy Bradley to come to the front and accept the thanks of the congregation for his interest in their community.
After cruising a few streets on DeLand’s south side, Chitwood was ready to head back to Deltona. As midnight approached, there were more star shells and loud bursts overhead. The air in the southwest quarter of DeLand was heavy with the acrid smoke of expended gunpowder.
Convinced he was hearing the sharp, piercing sound of gunshots, as well as fireworks, Chitwood made a quick entry into the Sha-De-Land mobile-home park.
A few people were outside their homes, but no firearm was to be seen. What appeared to be a father and his young daughter were holding sparklers, perfectly legal.
As we headed back to Deltona, the pace of radio traffic was quickening. One rather memorable emergency-dispatch call dealt with “a male and a female throwing bottles at each other” in DeLand, not far from the VCSO District 2 substation in the Victoria Square Shopping Center.
On the major roads, there was relatively little traffic.
Back in Deltona, Chitwood drove along Howland and Providence boulevards and went off onto the side streets in search of people setting off fireworks.
There were plenty of sites with spent mortars and rockets, as well as fire fountains, but no one who appeared to be “in the act” of detonating anything.
“It’s rather quiet,” Chitwood observed.
Deltona Mayor Heidi Herzberg, who was waiting at the Deltona substation, agreed.
“This is like, Dead Central. It’s so quiet this year,” she said.
Herzberg’s ride-along had featured a variety of calls about suspicious persons and a few domestic-violence calls.