Feb 28, 2019      News      

Chesterfield opposes state budget amendment requiring localities to fund more prosecutors to review police body camera videos

Chesterfield County officials asked their state senator to oppose a budget amendment that would require the county to pay for more prosecutors to assist with reviewing police body camera videos. The request came as the county’s top prosecutor warned that he needs to hire more attorneys or will have to slash services in the courtroom.

The county’s request was sent to Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, by email on Wednesday of last week, a day before she was to vote on the Senate’s version of the budget — and the day after Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport hand-delivered a letter to a county judge that said his office will stop handling misdemeanor offenses in lower court because of an understaffed office and the burden of reviewing body camera footage.

“I thought it was interesting, the timing of that, given (the Richmond Times-Dispatch) article on the body cams and trying to get that language” removed from the state budget, said Chase, who called the newspaper after a story was published online Wednesday of last week about Davenport’s letter to the court. The county “wanted me to vote against that.”

But Chase said she was unwilling to do so, at least at this late stage, because the state has never mandated that localities purchase body cameras for its police officers, and therefore it’s not an unfunded state mandate, which Chase said Chesterfield officials have asserted.

“The county is trying to put this off on the state,” Chase said. “They made the purchase, the state did not require them, and they need to come up with the funding.”

Chesterfield officials have argued that the county already provides more than half of the commonwealth’s attorney’s budget, and also complained that Davenport has not sufficiently justified the time impacts the body cameras have had on his staff.

Board Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle, in a letter dated Friday to Davenport, asked that he clarify “which misdemeanors and/or infractions you will not be prosecuting,” as well as which courts would be affected. “This will help all of us better understand the impacts you anticipate,” she wrote.

An amendment to the Senate’s budget bill says that any locality in Virginia that purchases body cameras for its patrol officers shall be required to hire one additional entry-level assistant commonwealth’s attorney for every 50 body cameras deployed for use by police. Chesterfield has deployed about 400 body cameras, so the measure would require the county to hire eight prosecutors to handle the workload.

In the county’s email to Chase, Mary Ann Curtin, Chesterfield’s General Assembly liaison, wrote that the “new mandate” would cost the county an estimated $800,000 to $900,000 annually. She said Henrico County estimated its cost at $800,000.

“This would impact every locality that uses body worn cameras,” she wrote.

Chase said she was irked that county officials contacted her so late, just as she was preparing to vote on the budget.

“I would have been happy to work with the Board of Supervisors had they communicated with me upfront that they had this issue and this need, but when I find out the day before I’m voting on the budget, there’s really nothing I can do about it,” Chase said.

“My big thing is, I want people to be clear that the state has not required the localities to buy these cameras,” she added. “It’s a local option that they have to pay for if they decide to go in that direction.”

In a nod to Davenport, Chase said he has been “pleading with the county for them to add more commonwealth’s attorneys because of the demands that these body cams have been putting on their department. And they’ve asked and pleaded with the Board of Supervisors for money and they’ve come up shorthanded every time.”

Chesterfield police began implementing the body camera program last April, which has generated thousands of hours of recorded videos that Davenport’s staff must often review and on occasion provide to defense attorneys through the discovery process. Davenport oversees a staff of 28 attorneys and has one of the largest dockets in the state.

On Feb. 20, Davenport and two of his top deputies hand-delivered a letter to Chief General District Judge Pamela O’Berry. The letter says he will stop assigning prosecutors to handle misdemeanor criminal offense and traffic infractions in lower court beginning on May 1. Davenport wrote that he realizes his decision will have a significant impact on county residents, the courts, police department and other agencies but that he has no other choice.

The cases will still go forward but will now have to be decided by a judge without the guidance or direction of a prosecutor.

State law does not require commonwealth’s attorneys to prosecute misdemeanors, and some Virginia localities, such as Norfolk and Virginia Beach, do not prosecute all misdemeanor offenses in lower courts.

In Norfolk, prosecutors only handle drunken-driving cases and misdemeanors involving domestic violence, stalking, firearms violations, street gang offenses and certain violations on school property, a spokeswoman said. Virginia Beach prosecutors only handle DUIs, domestic violence offenses and crimes on school grounds, a spokeswoman said.

Davenport’s letter to the judge was copied to Chesterfield’s state representatives, all five members of the Board of Supervisors, the county administrator and chief of police, among others.

Jaeckle, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, sent her letter to Davenport on Friday in response to his letter.

Jaeckle wrote that “fair and equitable administration of justice” remains a priority of the Board of Supervisors and it recognizes the importance of “adequate representation for county residents.” But funding of the commonwealth’s attorney, as a state constitutional officer, is primarily the responsibility of the state, Jaeckle wrote.

However, Jaeckle added, the county has provided “substantial resources” in its annual budget that are “well beyond” the amount provided by the state “in order to more adequately support the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.” She noted that Chesterfield currently provides Davenport’s office with $2.6 million in county money, or about 57 percent of Davenport’s total budget.

“In other words, this state function is predominately funded with local dollars,” Jaeckle wrote. “Moreover, the county has consistently strived to adjust that support as conditions have changed over the years.”

Jaeckle noted in the letter that the board previously has asked Davenport for more data on the time impacts the body camera program is having on his office, but so far has not received sufficient information to weigh whether additional money for more prosecutors is justified.

“Chesterfield has a proven track record of supporting the operations of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office,” she wrote in closing. “The county has routinely stepped up when the state has not. The Board remains interested in partnering further, but wishes to do so through the open exchange of data and information as has been the recent practice.”

When asked whether the county or Board of Supervisors would respond to Chase’s comments and concerns, Susan Pollard, Chesterfield’s communications director, said Jaeckle’s letter would serve as the county’s response. Pollard said the board and county officials were tied up in work sessions and meetings on Wednesday but would be willing to discuss the matter further on Thursday.

Read the full article here.