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Local, Politics, Public Safety

Are Augusta County leaders finally ready to move forward on police body cams?

Chris Graham
police body camera closeup
(© Олександр Луценко – stock.adobe.com)

It doesn’t take much to realize that the issue driving Augusta County politics the past couple of years has been police body cams.

The Augusta County 6 has marginalized the seventh member, Scott Seaton, since Seaton came out strongly in favor of body cams for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office in 2022, and the 6 resisted the push from Seaton and a wide swath of community groups, with one intimating that he wasn’t going to be intimidated into supporting something that 90 percent of county residents said in a survey conducted in 2023 they want.

That move had to do in part with boxing Seaton into a corner, and with another feud that has had influence on county politics dating back a decade, involving Nexus Services.

Those fissures, between the 6 and Seaton, and the 6 and Nexus Services, have spread to basically every major issue on the docket for the Augusta County Board of Supervisors over the past couple of years, and has been most visible publicly, over the past nine months, in the ongoing dispute between the county and two local news organizations, AFP and Breaking Through Media, over a public-records request related to the resignation of a former member of the 6, Steven Morelli, who stepped down from his elected seat under fire in March 2023.

With that bit of background, I’m now going to tell you that the Board of Supervisors seems poised, for the second straight year, to include funding for body cams in the upcoming fiscal-year budget.

Don’t get too excited, though.

I say that because, the sentiment in the direction of funding body cams for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office at Monday’s Board work session is similar to what we heard from county leaders this time last year, and you remember what happened this time last year.

But that was this time last year.

Can we finally be moving past the personal pettiness toward getting things done?

Fingers crossed.

Yes, I’m trying to see the positive, based on how Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith has included a request for 110 body-worn cameras 60 in-car cameras, and two associated IT personnel in his proposed budget, Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin has included a request for two staff positions to work on cam footage in his budget, and County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald is telling us that it would all cost $877,049 in the 2025 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

This isn’t a one-time cost, per Fitzgerald, so, we can presume a similar level of expense in the coming years.

Important caveat there.

Once we’re in, we’re all in.

Two supervisors who flipped their support for body cams at the last minute last spring, Gerald Garber and Butch Wells, seem to be on board with moving ahead on the implementation of the cams this year.

Wells, the former police chief in the City of Staunton, spoke on the matter from the experience in his three decades-plus in law enforcement.

“We’re in a changing society, and our deputies, and not only our deputies, but other law enforcement officers out here in this world today, are facing more situations that involve potential shootings, officer shootings, than we’d ever seen when I worked. If we came across somebody carrying a firearm, it was a big talk for six months. Now, it’s happening multiple times,” Wells said at the Monday budget work session.

This was Garber on the cams:

“From an article I read, I don’t think anybody believed that they didn’t have cameras with the Capitol Police, but they’re gonna try them, and the State Police is dabbling in it. Rockingham is starting. It’s changing the world, and making us better.”

Keep in mind that, again, Garber and Wells flipped last spring, voting against a body-cam proposal that had been included in last year’s proposed budget after having earlier expressed support, explicitly allowing the issue to get caught up in the years-long political feud between county leadership and the locally-infamous Nexus Services.

Nexus Services, which began operations in 2014, has been the focus of numerous state and federal criminal investigations, including a $1.5 million employment tax fraud indictment against former company VP Richard Moore announced in 2021, and a 2021 lawsuit filed by attorneys general in three states, including Virginia, and the federal Consumer Protection Bureau, alleging that the company preys on immigrants held in federal detention centers by concealing or misrepresenting the true nature and costs of its services.

Nexus Services established a corporate headquarters in Augusta County in 2015, with county leaders initially touting the reported 250 jobs that Nexus Services, which helps post bond through third-party licensed bondsmen for people held in immigration detention centers while they await court cases, would bring to the local economy.

The era of good feelings would be short-lived. The company filed a federal lawsuit against Smith in 2016, alleging that Smith, then in his first year in office after being elected sheriff in the 2015 cycle, was working with a local bail bondsman to derail its bonding program.

That suit was later dropped.

In 2019, an effort to link Smith to a Harrisonburg man who was convicted in a 2018 labor-trafficking case during Smith’s run for re-election was linked to a PAC formed by a Nexus Services VP.

Nexus Services was also at the center of a series of protests at the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office in 2021 that led to the arrests of 19 people on noise ordinance and disorderly conduct charges, most of which were eventually dismissed in Augusta County General District Court.

The protests were organized and led by Nexus Services officials in the aftermath of two officer-involved shootings, 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.

A 2022 case brought locally against Nexus Services CEO Michael Donovan, company vice president Timothy Shipe and Moore, a former VP, alleges that Donovan and Moore stole $426,000 from Zachary Cruz, the brother of Parkland High School mass shooter Nikolas Cruz.

The last bit of back-and-forth involving the county and Nexus Services – Breaking Through News, one of the two parties bringing suit against the county over the public-records request involving the Morelli resignation, features articles written by Donovan’s and Moore’s son, and former cast members of a Nexus Services-produced TV show.

All politics, as the saying goes, is local.

Here’s how that is relevant to the body-cams issue: Garber seemed to acknowledge the feud with Nexus Services as a reason for his decision to flip from supporting the body and dash cams to voting against them last night.

“I had a lady who wrote me a four-page letter who said she was in favor of the body cameras, she supported the sheriff’s office, but she thought we were being bullied and shouldn’t do it at this time,” Garber said last year.

This is the depths of what pettiness can bring to political decision-making – OK, so, we should do this, but these people that we don’t like support it, so we’re not going to do the right thing, out of spite.

We’ve seen a lot of this kind of cutting-off-our-nose-to-spite-our-own-face policymaking in Augusta County of late.

I’m hoping that what we heard from county leaders on Monday is a sign that we’re finally ready to move forward, but …

This still is Augusta County that we’re talking about here.

Show me the money, basically.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].