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Sheriff Ford: ‘Job comes first’


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PANAMA CITY — On the back side of Hurricane Michael, winds still whipped through Bay County at more than 60 mph as Sheriff Tommy Ford and Deputy Chief Joel Heape emerged from the sheriff’s office.

Trees, towers, building debris and power lines littered the roads and blocked the office’s entrance. In search of communications to make contact with officers stationed out in the community, Ford and Heape had to push through a fence to begin making their way to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which has the capability to withstand the Category 5 Hurricane conditions the unprecedented storm almost attained. The first sight at what Hurricane Michael wrought was jarring.

“I literally had to stop in my tracks,” Ford said. “It took my breath away, just looking at all the devastation.”

An array of obstacles and unpredictable difficulties followed that first sight for law enforcement. But since the afternoon landfall of Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10 raked away infrastructure throughout the county, the slow and steady progress of the community is what has stood out to Ford.

“Having been out here for the past three weeks, I’m amazed at the progress and the resiliency of the citizens,” he said. “Our challenge now as the recovery slows down will be to maintain the right attitude and recognize we’re all in this together.”

Backup pours in

As the crews began clearing the downed trees clogging the arteries of Bay County, assisting law enforcement agencies flooded the area. More than 600 officers from across the state staged in a Target parking lot near the heart of the county, providing additional units for presence, patrols and humanitarian assistance. In the past few days, though, about half have begun their journey back home as utilities come back online.

“They were absolutely critical,” Ford said. “Anytime you have one of these resource-intensive efforts to stabilize, you have to re-evaluate constantly to determine what is needed. All our people are still working every day. Despite suffering losses, the job comes first and they have stepped up and taken care of the community.”

Ford said about 330 officers remain assisting all police forces in Bay County, and each will be evaluating the demand for assistance on a day-by-day basis. But how long the transition from the “response phase” will take before passing completely into the “recovery phase” is unclear.


In the immediate wake of Hurricane Michael, two main factors were frustrating for officers as they set out on response missions: communication and travel. Almost all lines of cellphone services were down as the storm passed and the sun began to set on impassable roads throughout the county. Ford said law enforcement had prepared for communication to be disrupted but did not anticipate it would to be to such a substantial and sustained degree.

“With a storm of this magnitude, that’s always a possibility,” he said. “It was a helpless feeling to come out and not be able to communicate with my people in the field — to give them assistance and hear their needs.”

Not only did cellphone service drop out indefinitely — service from some companies remains an issue in the county — BCSO had spotty radio reception after the storm. When officials determined the cellphone issue would be prolonged, almost every officer had to get set up with a “burner phone,” including the sheriff.

“In looking back, I think it went well because of the cooperation and coordination up and down the food chain,” Ford said. “Not just the police but also elected officials, actively working together to ask what they can do to help.”


Once communication became more widespread and roads opened, travel remained an issue with traffic coming to a standstill at every main intersection, many of which had traffic lights ripped away by the 155-mph winds. Ford said one of the most difficult decisions he had to make the days after the storm was when to lift checkpoints on the main roads to Bay County. He said it boiled down to progress versus personal rights.


“If people would have just stayed out for more days as we restored power that would have been optimal,” Ford said. “But people have property rights and loved ones to check on.”

Traffic during the daytime clogged the roads into the evening when a mandatory curfew went into effect to quell another issue officers faced: looting. BCSO recently released figures that show 278 people were arrested in the past three weeks for either violating curfew or looting. Of those, 58 individuals — 51 males and 7 females — were charged with looting, BCSO reported.

Officers coming in contact with people suspected of looting said that more times than not, the suspects also were carrying firearms. A state financial crimes officer shot and killed one man the night after the storm in Bayou George during an alleged looting attempt.

BCSO also arrested a group of heavily armed militia members, identifying themselves as “The Oath Keepers,” for allegedly violating the curfew. Officers seized several semi-automatic assault rifles, a large cache of ammo and tactical vests from the group.

On top of enforcing curfew laws and working widespread looting in areas without power, officers continued to work crimes familiar to the area. Law enforcement saw a boom in domestic violence as the stress of living without running water and lights conspired with being in close quarters with family members. At least two deaths — a husband shot and killed his wife, then turned the gun on himself — and two domestic attempted murders took place in the weeks since Hurricane Michael.

Ford described the demands from the workload as “extremely difficult.”

“It was a challenge,” he said. “I don’t think anything could have prepared us for what we faced.”

Local officers

Reflective of the community in which they serve, many officers suffered some form of loss during the storm. About 150 officers from BCSO and the local police departments were rendered homeless by Hurricane Michael. All of those officers worked “Alpha-Bravo” shifts of at least 12 hours a day every day in the immediate aftermath of the storm, seeing sights of devastation and compassion.

“It inspires me,” Ford said. “We have people who took significant personal loss. But due to their calling, they are out here serving the public.”

Many officers lost their bearings in the seemingly never-ending shifts. “It all blends together” was a common response when asked what day or time a crime took place. But with the assistance from other agencies, some have managed to have a single day of the week off to piece together their lives.

Ford said it has taken a long time to cycle through all of his officers to allow a day off, and some are still waiting. In the meantime, BCSO has tried to find temporary housing for families of officers who lost their own and attempted to provide supplies. They even brought in a trailer from Alabama stocked with dry goods outside BCSO and called it “Sheriff-mart” to get supplies to officers.

As the assistance from outside agencies begins to taper off, though, the demands on law enforcement are likely to only shift in nature rather than decrease. Many areas of the county still are without power and under a mandatory curfew as officials begin to shift into the “recovery phase” of the disaster. With the continuing curfew violations and domestic incidents, officers are expecting to start seeing rampant scams in tandem with recovery schemes.

Ford said his criminal investigation division has begun to shift back to working those cases and looking for people coming into town to take advantage of those situations.

“We’re going to continue to face challenges,” he said. “We’re a long ways from going back to normal.”

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