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The Waynesboro side of the police body cam issue

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(© Олександр Луценко – stock.adobe.com)

The biggest issue with policing in Waynesboro has nothing to do with our mutual aid agreement with the sheriff’s office in Augusta County not using body cams.

Which is to say, that’s not even an issue, considering.

Our issues: keeping staff numbers up, having enough patrol officers on the streets given our issues with staffing, the resources being diverted from policing to deal with mental health issues, because no one else does that.

It’s these that keep Police Chief Mike Wilhelm up at night, literally.

Wilhelm sat down with me this week to address questions that I’d thrown his way in the wake of a request from a citizens’ group at a Waynesboro City Council meeting earlier in the month to have the city break its mutual aid agreement with Augusta County in light of revelations that the county sheriff’s office somehow still doesn’t equip its deputies with body cams.

The concern is more salient in the wake of a pair of officer-involved shootings in the county last month that resulted in the death of one man, and questions surrounding what led to the escalation in both cases that, unfortunately, are hard to answer.

Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith has, understandably, come under fire for not prioritizing what seems to be a basic necessity for a law enforcement agency in this day and age.

The request from the citizens’ group in Waynesboro is sort of friendly fire at the city PD that would have the city PD use Nelson County for mutual aid instead.

From talking with Wilhelm, that’s a big no-go, the key issue there being that Nelson County falls under a separate and distinct magisterial district, which means, a different magistrate would have to be involved in processing required legal paperwork.

“It’s just not practical, from that standpoint,” Wilhelm said.

Then there’s the fact that the Blue Ridge mountain range is a barrier, that not all of Nelson County is in Afton and Nellysford – Gladstone, an unincorporated community on the southeastern tip of Nelson, is a one-hour, six-minute drive from Waynesboro, according to Google Maps.

Imagine Nelson County deputies in Gladstone being called as backup to a situation in Waynesboro, or vice versa.

“Not practical” would seem to apply here, as well.

Whereas Waynesboro, like Staunton, to our west, is literally surrounded by Augusta County.

It makes sense from a geographic perspective, then, to have a mutual aid agreement in place between the cities and the county sheriff’s office.

And then there’s how the current agreement in place between the three that was most recently updated in 1999 lays out a lot that you’re probably not aware of, not just in terms of allowing the law enforcement entities in the three localities to assist each other as needed, but also giving each jurisdiction at Augusta Health, which is crucial as more and more calls to law enforcement involve emergency custody orders, temporary detention orders and people in mental health crisis.

“There’s been nights when we have eight, nine, ten patients up there that we have to either guard or transport, and we’ve got to have that authority to do our job,” Wilhelm said. “We’ve had so many days where, hey, we need help at the hospital today, can somebody come in and either transport somebody from Augusta Health to Petersburg or Southwest Virginia? Or, we have five mental health patients up here, and there’s no beds available for them, and we need two or three officers to come up and just watch them because we can’t rely on Augusta Health security to do that, because it’s just too much of a burden.”

This kind of thing is going on every day.

“I don’t think a lot of people know this is going on,” Wilhelm said. “Mental health, in particular, has really taken a toll on law enforcement resources.”

Which is to say, the police chief is very much with those who back reforms that would take the primary responsibility for answering mental health calls away from law enforcement in favor of engaging social services agencies in the process.

“When we got rid of the detox center, that was a huge hit in terms of dealing with mental health and substance abuse, because most of your people with mental health issues, they have substance abuse issues as well,” Wilhelm said. “So, I mean, when that one out, when New Hope Detox went out, it was just like, OK, well, what do we do with them? Well, either park them at the hospital, or take them to jail.

“That’s not good options for anybody, not for us, not for them. It’s just, that’s crazy,” Wilhelm said. “Everybody expects the police to handle it, but the thing is, we’re not trained to do that. Yes, the crisis intervention training that we brought on back in 2006, we now train people how to deal with these issues. We’re not social workers, but we’ve got to have that basic knowledge on how to deal with somebody in crisis.”

Resources are being strained by having police handle mental health situations at a time when law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep personnel numbers up.

The Waynesboro Police Department is currently at full staffing, Wilhelm said, but there’s a caveat – 11 of the 49 sworn officers are currently in training, representing almost a quarter of the force, either on their way to the police academy or in field training.

This issue is not anything new, sad to say. The Waynesboro PD, dating back to my early days as a cub reporter here back in the mid-1990s, has been a sort of revolving door in terms of staffing, the big issue being low pay, which makes it so that city taxpayers are constantly paying for new officers to go to academy, get trained, get a couple of years of experience, before moving on to agencies that offer better pay and benefits.

One of my neighbors on the West End is an Albemarle County police officer, which I know because his ACPD cruiser is parked outside his house.

An informal count has the number of ACPD officers who live in Waynesboro at more than a dozen, with another seven or eight Charlottesville PD officers here.

That’s around 20 experienced officers taking advantage of our great quality of life and low cost of living punching the clock over the mountain, while we have a quarter of our police force tied up in police academy and field training.

“And we’re looking at a bunch more retirements this coming year, and it’s like, wow, where are we going to get the resources from?” Wilhelm said. “I mean, we’ve got a good core of people here, but some of them are just so young and inexperienced. Experience and training are really what matters in law enforcement these days. Because if you’re young, and you don’t know how to do the job, you’re going to make mistakes. That just comes with the territory.”

Manpower being what it is, the Waynesboro PD has been ahead of the curve in terms of technology, particularly in the area of body cams.

Wilhelm, who was named police chief in 2011, started looking at the department’s options with respect to body cams in 2012, and moved forward a year later.

“It’s worked out phenomenally for us,” Wilhelm said. “We had buy-in from everybody from the top down from the outset. The new officers, the old officers, were like, yeah, they’re great. People tend to behave better. You get cops who behave and do what they’re supposed to do. It’s just kind of a good checks and balances for doing police work, so we embraced it from the get-go.”

Augusta County, as we know, has not – to the point that Smith has admitted that body cams are not his top priority when he makes out his annual budgets, his focus being on staffing and compensation, for similar reasons outlined by Wilhelm above.

As we were wrapping up our sitdown, I pressed Wilhelm – should city residents be concerned that the mutual aid agreement with Augusta County means that, from time to time, sheriff’s deputies who aren’t outfitted with body cams are sometimes on the scene of police calls in the city limits?

“I think we’re fine,” Wilhelm said. “If we call for their assistance, we’re going to have an incident command structure in place. They’re not going to be running around doing their own thing. They’re going to be operating under our incident command structure and doing things the way we want it, the same with them.

“If we go to help them out, we don’t automatically show up and go well, I’m here to help, but I’m in charge now, what do you need help with?” Wilhelm said. “Most of the time, it’s simple things, like traffic direction, you’re looking for a wanted armed person, I mean, a missing Alzheimer’s patient. We’re all for help for that. We don’t have the adequate resources, so they’re here, they’re willing to help.”

Story by Chris Graham


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