Car chases blast into headlines after St. Johns deputies attend controversial training program
Image via St. Johns Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

St Johns Sheriff
9 states banned Street Cop Training courses, but St. Johns Sheriff's Office sent a unit to an Orlando conference anyway.

The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office sent a number of deputies to a controversial training seminar this Spring. Since then, the Department has seen a spike in high-profile care chases resulting in injuries or deaths.

Now, critics are complaining Sheriff Robert Hardwick has allowed a “cowboy cop” culture to cultivate within the agency.

In April, the Sheriff’s Office sent members of a special task force, including one supervisor, to a Street Cop Training seminar in Orlando. The event promised five days of “priceless law enforcement knowledge” on topics from spotting smuggling tactics and traps to reading body language and “the gun game.”

“The law enforcement community has come to recognize that if it has a Street Cop label on it, you can trust that it’s going to be top quality training,” promotional materials ahead of the event said.

But that reputation may not be as strong as advertised.

Nine states have banned members of law enforcement from attending Street Cop Training courses altogether. They did so after a deeply critical report by the New Jersey Comptroller’s Office that said the organization, which was then headquartered in the Garden State, promoted unconstitutional policing tactics during vehicle stops and “glorified violence and an excessively militaristic or ‘warrior’ approach.”

The report’s fallout led the organization to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and relocate from New Jersey to Florida this year, according to its social media. The organization now lists its headquarters in Crestview.

“It was nice to be welcomed with open arms and even encouraged to come here. I love the sunshine state,” Street Cop owner Dennis Benigno wrote in an Instagram post.

“I wish I would have done it sooner. So yea, I’m a Floridian and Street Cop Training is no longer a NJ entity and will never do business there again. Rather than spend time in the past we look forward to our future and ensuring that the people of this country get a better police officer to serve and protect them.”

But increasingly, people wonder if that’s what communities actually are getting.

Local media took note when the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office was the only Northeast Florida agency to send personnel to Street Cop Training’s Orlando conference after the critical New Jersey report was published.

Action New Jax asked all local agencies how many sent personnel to the event, and only the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office had. Sheriff’s Offices in Clay, Nassau, Putnam and Duval counties did not send anyone this year (though the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had sent officers to events predating the New Jersey audit).

St. Johns Sheriff’s Lt. George Harrigan confirmed to Florida Politics the agency sent five deputies from the Task Force Unit to the event at their request. A supervisor was also sent to monitor training, with instructions he pull deputies from the course if any material proved objectionable. Such steps never proved necessary, Harrigan said.

“We did a debrief with those guys and there were not any concerns as described in the New Jersey report from years ago,” Harrigan said.

He also noted the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office was not the only Florida agency to send personnel. The Action News Jax report included an interview with a Baker’s County Sheriff’s Office deputy in attendance, and Harrigan understands several Central Florida agencies also participated in the sold-out event.

Since that point, a number of incidents of alleged excessive force have made headlines.

Within days of the Orlando conference, a routine traffic stop escalated into a high-speed chase where a suspect hit two other cars before being apprehended, according to Action News Jax. In another May incident, deputies shot a man suspected of drunk driving after a car chase, News 4 Jax reported.

A man was killed in June in a deputy-involved shooting after his family called concerned he left home with a gun and was suicidal, according to News 4 Jax. In that case, the individual was killed after ramming a patrol vehicle on U.S. 1.

Another incident involving a suspect charged with DUI resulted in a car chase with deputies and led to two Florida Highway Patrol troopers being injured in a crash, according to First Coast News.

Also in May, St. Johns Sheriff’s deputies were involved in a car chase with a Palm Coast man accused of filming a 10-year-old undressing. The chase ended in Flagler County after deputies deployed strike strips, resulting in the suspect colliding with another car, and being ejected from the vehicle to his death, according to FlaglerLive.

While each of the incidents may have drawn little criticism individually, it collectively raised questions of why St. Johns Sheriff’s Office deputies suddenly were engaged in car chases resulting in injuries and deaths.

Harrigan said he did not know if any of the attendees at the Street Cop Training event were involved in any of these chases. But he suggested officer actions aren’t what leads to such situations.

“A chase can spontaneously happen,” he said. “That’s not a use of force issue. In fact, there have been no use-of-force incidents with members of the unit.”

He said no decision has been made whether St. Johns Sheriff’s deputies will attend a Street Cop Training event in the future.

The New Jersey report suggests the seminars by Street Cop Training in fact could contribute to situations dangerous to those involved and to the public. It said instructors “used videos of motor vehicle stops during their presentations where they seated suspects in the front of their patrol cars during questioning. Being confronted with this unusual request during an otherwise typical motor vehicle stop is likely to (elicit) nervous reactions and responses from motorists which, in turn, could unfairly be used as factors to further prolong the stop.”

It spotlighted videos from 2021 and 2022 conferences by Street Cop Training where Benigno and other instructors gave reasons for detaining motorists for behaviors that aren’t criminal, such as smoking or driving long distances in formal clothes.

“Benigno also made several comments that encouraged officers to adopt the warrior/enemy mentality,” the report said. “During his presentation, Benigno asked attendees why they are ‘treating this job like it won’t take your fucking life in a second,’ questioned whether they want to be at holidays or their next birthdays, and advised attending officers to ‘treat every motor vehicle stop as if you are going to die and you might just live.’”

An email to Street Cop Training from Florida Politics was not returned. After the report came out, Benigno addressed the substance publicly but focused chiefly on the blunt language used in seminars.

“Yea we cursed at our event and told jokes. But to this day even after further review there is still nothing supporting any claims of 4th Amendment wrong doings or racial unfairness,” reads the Instagram post about leaving New Jersey for Florida. “But the press won’t report that. They have zero interest in having a fair conversation and uncovering the truth.”

The organization also said it already has plans to continue providing seminars in 2025.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • Ron Ogden

    July 8, 2024 at 6:48 am

    Another episode in the long-running and utterly asinine attempt to blame law enforcement for enforcing laws. The responsibility for the harm of crime belongs to CRIMINALS, not to law enforcement. Car chases occur because criminals flee. If they stopped and surrendered to the legitimate authority of the community when ordered to, there would be no car chases and no accidents–and no news stories reciting how sappy bureaucrats get all pimply about their perceptions of violence.

    • Jojo

      July 8, 2024 at 7:35 am

      So it’s ok with you for a policeman to be conducting a high speed chase for a minor traffic violation and wind up running over a kid or causing a car accident and killing grandma?

      • Mark H.

        July 8, 2024 at 8:54 am

        So it’s ok with you if the officer lets the drunk go and he hits and kills your grandma?

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      • just sayin

        July 8, 2024 at 2:39 pm

        “Also in May, St. Johns Sheriff’s deputies were involved in a car chase with a Palm Coast man accused of filming a 10-year-old undressing. The chase ended in Flagler County after deputies deployed strike strips, resulting in the suspect colliding with another car, and being ejected from the vehicle to his death”

        Truly tragic.

  • Jojo

    July 8, 2024 at 7:37 am

    When you arm police as though they are preparing for war, how else are they supposed to view people but as the enemy?

    • Mark H.

      July 8, 2024 at 8:55 am

      Get a clue JoJo, the criminals are armed way better than the police.

      • Ocean Joe

        July 8, 2024 at 9:09 am

        Here’s a clue.

        After the Iraq fiasco, W pushed all kinds of military surplus equipment onto local police departments. SWAT teams are loaded up nicely.

        Criminals have extensive arsenals because the NRA demands it. If you have a problem with that why is it you guys always try to stop record checks?

  • Phil Eglin

    July 8, 2024 at 1:31 pm

    Criminals bad. Police good. Can I speak with you regarding your car’s extended warranty?

Comments are closed.


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