'An option that we have never had before': Cooney challenges Flowers for Indian River County sheriff

Corey Arwood Treasure Coast NewspapersPublished 8:00 AM EDT Sep 18, 2020INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Voters in t

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INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Voters in the Nov. 3 general election have a choice between two candidates with very different visions of what it means to be sheriff of Indian River County.

Eric Flowers, 40, a sheriff's major with 17 years at the agency who won the Republican Primary against three veteran law enforcement officers, faces a newcomer to both law enforcement and public office and who promises sweeping reforms if elected.

Deborah Cooney, 57, of Vero Beach said she will be "an option that we have never had before" appearing on ballots.

The winner will lead the agency of roughly 500 employees in policing a jurisdiction of roughly 103,138, among a county of nearly 160,000 residents, according to 2019 statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and U.S. Census estimates.

The Sheriff's Office operates on a roughly $55 million budget and is one of the county's largest employers.

The winner will be sworn in as sheriff Jan. 5, 2021, for a four-year term with an annual salary of $139,211 and the possibility of $2,000 in bonuses annually if educational certification qualifications are met.

'Fiscal responsibility candidate'

Cooney is running for office unaffiliated with any political party. She initially entered the race as a Democrat, and later changed to no party affiliation.

Her stated background is in banking administration and music performance and education.

She classifies herself as a "fiscal responsibility candidate" who aims to bring fundamental changes to the agency.

"The biggest issue facing Indian River County, and the entire country, obviously is police misconduct. That is the reason for massive protests across the nation, and the resignations or terminations of many police officers and chiefs.  It is the reason that some folks are calling for defunding the police.  

For the first time in history, some of the offending officers are facing criminal charges for their crimes, and some are even convicted..." Cooney stated in an email. "In Indian River County, we are not seeing any of this progress because of the deep-seated corruption in our criminal justice system.  Fortunately, the citizens have the option of voting for a candidate who has and will work to root out the corruption..."

She has also been outspoken in her belief that police unions should be banned to remedy the alleged police misconduct.

Cooney's published platform spans a range of topics and personal beliefs, such as her opposition to mandatory vaccines and views that electromagnetic frequencies from electronic devices, or EMFs, are connected to gun violence and mass shootings; which she said were orchestrated by the CIA through "mind control" programs. Her beliefs and proposals are found on her campaign site.

She said she supports protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, and the local demonstrations in Gifford and Vero Beach.

She has taken to social media several times with her opposition to face masks and any proposed government mask mandate to curb COVID-19 transmission.

More: Indian River County sheriff candidate stands out at debate, but for wrong reason | Opinion

Among a variety of changes she proposes at the Sheriff's Office and in the community are:

  • Bring corrupt deputies and others to justice. The remaining deputies and employees will be given a 20% raise.
  • The drug cartel will be shut down.
  • Addicts will not be arrested. They will be sent to rehab.
  • We will not make arrests for non-violent misdemeanors.
  • We will not enforce the Baker Act.
  • We will ban no knock raids, choke holds, spit hoods, Tasers ... 
  •  We will ban police unions, which are mafia protection rackets

More: General Election 2020: Candidates reply to questionnaires

'Always have the taxpayer in mind'

On Aug. 18, Flowers defeated three Republican opponents with lifelong careers in law enforcement. Two of those were sitting police chiefs — Keith Touchberry, of Fellsmere, and Richard Rosell, of Indian River Shores.

He won with over 62% of the vote.

After 17 years and reaching the rank of major, Flowers began his campaign at age 39, with decades less time on the job than some of his competition in the Republican Primary.

Sheriff Deryl Loar, who announced his retirement March 4, 2019 after three four-year terms, immediately endorsed Flowers, kicking off his campaign.

More: Indian River County Sheriff's Office: Eric Flowers beats 3 challengers to win primary; heads to November election

Flowers has pledged to "always have the taxpayer in mind" while setting budgets and considers himself a "fiscal conservative."

Flowers touts a working knowledge of ongoing projects across the agency, and said one of his goals is to improve recruitment and retention at the agency.

"I am the only candidate that can start on day one without having to learn ... operational necessities," Flowers told voters during his campaign. "I know the names; I know the players; and I know how to create immediate, meaningful change and improvements the first day I am your sheriff."

In the wake of national protests surrounding the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Flowers said body cameras for deputies are a possibility.

In his first year in office, he said he would order a cost-benefit analysis for body camera systems, whose cost should be shared by other agencies.

"Body-worn cameras will only serve to confirm that our deputies are performing their jobs with the utmost professionalism," he said. "Body-worn cameras will provide additional protection for our deputies and continue to build trust with the community."

Flowers is on the sheriff's executive command staff and has worked in various roles at the agency over 17 years. He said his focus is on "ensuring the safety of our community," which means addressing two distinct groups of people.

The first group, he said, are good people who make bad decisions.

"It’s important we hold those people accountable, but then we also kind of wrap our arms around them and help them get back on the right track. Many of them are our family members, our friends," he said.

The other group is "our violent felony offenders," he said.

"There is evil in the world and if we lose sight of that, then we have lost everything. ...Those people do not get any breaks," he said.

More: Indian River County 2020 sheriff candidates talk about about policing, protest and reform

Campaign financials

As of Sept. 1, Flowers received $190,800 in campaign contributions from 570 independent contributors. He garnered $27,775 from 66 in-kind contributions by Aug. 1. He has spent $179,646.

Contributions came from a wide spectrum of businesses including real estate; citrus producers, irrigation companies, consultants, a country club, medical offices and trucking businesses. He had support from many law enforcement officials, including some sheriffs around the state.

As of Sept. 1, Cooney secured $10,290 contributions from 14 contributors, with the bulk coming from a personal loan she made in June of $7,090.

More: State's annual crime report shows overall drop in crime across Indian River County; increase in assaults, thefts

From August to September she received $195 in total reported in-kind contributions. Her expenses were $8,174.

Corey Arwood is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow Corey on Twitter @coreyarwood, or reach him by phone at 772-978-2246.

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