State lawmakers navigating a thorny dispute between prosecutors overwhelmed by the growing volume of police-worn body camera footage and localities reluctant to pay for more lawyers have pumped the brakes on prescribing a solution.
They’ve opted instead to study the matter, after punting on a proposal from state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, which would require any locality buying body cameras for patrol officers to hire one additional entry-level assistant commonwealth’s attorney for every 50 body cameras deployed.
The compromise comes after localities neck-deep in budget season balked and some prosecutors clashed over whether and how to examine the footage.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I was hoping for this to be a way for us to get some extra help,” Nottoway County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theresa Royall said Monday. “We just thought it was going to go through. I’m at least glad that the General Assembly is taking this seriously, and I do think they are invested in addressing this. It’s better than nothing.”
A panel with representation from the state Supreme Court, Department of Criminal Justice Services, commonwealth’s attorneys, local governments and other stakeholders has been tasked with investigating “how body worn cameras have or may continue to impact the workloads experienced by Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices,” according to state budget language.
Group members will examine how other states have grappled with the issue and analyze potential financial and staffing challenges, among others. Recommendations that state lawmakers will consider for their 2019 session are due by Dec. 1.
A spokesperson for Norment did not return a request for comment Monday.
Collin Stolle, the Virginia Beach commonwealth’s attorney and a member of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys who successfully pitched the budget language to Norment, likewise declined to comment.
For localities, the change means a state mandate on the back-end costs of body-worn cameras will not affect their budgets, at least for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“We’re excited. It’s what we were advocating for all along, for it to be further studied,” said Chesterfield Deputy County Administrator Matt Harris. “We definitely used the extended session to get our point across, but I’m not sure how all the stars aligned.”
In Chesterfield, the original proposal would have translated to a roughly $800,000 to $900,000 expense for eight additional lawyers, igniting a bitter back-and-forth between elected officials in recent months within the county that is home to one of the largest commonwealth’s attorney’s offices in the state.
Chesterfield elected county officials pointed out that they already provided more than half of the budget for the state-funded constitutional office and requested more data on state staffing shortages and the body camera impacts on the office of Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport.
Davenport echoed some other chief prosecutors across the state in official letters stating that the hours of footage his staff is now required to watch has exceeded capacity. That workload, he said, caused him to recently curtail the number of misdemeanors his office prosecutes.
The county’s new police chief is now re-examining when officers turn on their cameras during an incident and which officers should carry them.
Neither Davenport nor Chesterfield Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney John Childrey returned interview requests Monday.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who had previously voiced support for the mandate, could not be reached for comment.
Some hope the working group will explore how much footage prosecutors are ethically obligated to watch and redact, since inconsistency on that point has ushered debate about how much staffing prosecutor’s offices actually need.
For Royall, the greatest time burden is the fact that she feels ethically obligated to watch all the footage, though not all of her counterparts are doing the same.
“There are so many aspects of [body cameras] that are uncharted,” said Royall, who also is on the board of directors for the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. “At the end of the day, we are elected, and we are each going to do what we want to do. It would help to try to come up with an agreement about what we think is required.”