How can body cams not be a top priority in Augusta County?
Let’s grant Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith that the Board of Supervisors hasn’t come to the table with money for body cams for his deputies.
OK, so, how much responsibility does Smith bear for his admitted lack of priority for body cams in his annual budget requests?
Yes, we get it, his priority is more personnel, and it’s not hard to argue that the county, the second biggest locality in terms of land mass in the Commonwealth, needs more warm bodies.
It takes a full hour to drive from one side of the county to the other, east to west, a half-hour to make it from south to north.
That’s a lot of territory to cover – 971 square miles, comparable to the state of Rhode Island – with 39 patrol deputies rotating in 12-hour shifts.
The Board of Supervisors takes perverse pride in spending the bare minimum to provide public services, though, to be fair, the people who elect the people who take that perverse pride seem to demand it.
There’s a reason the schools aren’t up to snuff, basic infrastructure is held together by spit and tape, why it can take an hour for a deputy to show up for a 911 call from a convenience store being cased by three guys sitting in a van 10 minutes before closing.
Forgive me that one. Happened to me back when I was working a part-time job at a store in Crimora the summer before my fourth year of college.
Longest hour of my life, waiting for the good guys to get there.
Hey, you get what you pay for, is the lesson here.
Smith needs more deputies. He needs better communications capabilities. It’s unfathomably true that there are dead spots in the communications infrastructure that make it hard if not impossible for deputies to be able to communicate back to Verona and with other patrol deputies.
It’s 2021, folks, and county leaders still have our deputies connecting with each other with tomato cans and strings.
Which gets us to the body cams. You can see where it’s not priority number one, given the gaping holes elsewhere that Smith has to plug.
And yet, I’m sorry, this is, again, 2021.
We simply can’t keep sending deputies out on calls without the basic protection for them and for the citizens that they’re going to come into contact with that body cams provide.
The issue most recently came to a head with a pair of officer-involved shootings last month, one of which led to the death of a Grottoes man who had told family members of his desire to die by suicide-by-cop.
We’ll never know what really happened in the tense moments preceding both shootings, because all we have is the words of the law-enforcement personnel involved, and as much as you want to take them at their words, we’ve seen it over and over elsewhere, that body cam footage often adds details that throw into question the official accounts.
The missing body cams puts citizens at risk, it puts the sheriff’s office at risk – of complications in prosecutions, of civil suits alleging wrongdoing.
The body cam issue becomes an economic one as well. The county spends money on efforts in economic development and tourism, trying to get business and industry to invest money in the county to provide good-paying jobs, to get people from across the state, across the Mid-Atlantic, to visit our wineries, craft breweries, bed and breakfasts.
It’s now very much out there that Augusta County law enforcement does what it does without something that is considered a necessity.
If you’re a CEO looking at a location for a new headquarters, a spot to set up a new production facility, if you’re from Richmond, Hampton Roads, the DMV, and you’re thinking of spending a weekend in the mountains, it might enter your thinking, that place is the Wild West with its cops running around without body cams, maybe I should stick to the interstate on my way through to somewhere else.
All of this needs to be a top priority – more deputies, improved communications, body cams.
Yeah, I know.
It costs money, and the people who vote, and the people they vote for, prefer to do things on the cheap.
Maybe we can set up a GoFundMe.
Story by Chris Graham