Augusta County sheriff continues to fight body, dashboard cams

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OK, let’s be real here. The effort to in essence start a GoFundMe to raise money for body and dashboard cameras for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office was troll level: expert,

County Sheriff Donald Smith has hemmed and hawed the past couple of years on body and dash cameras, saying at the same time that he wants them, but also that they’re not high on his priority list.

He wants first, he has said, more money for salaries for deputies and emergency dispatchers, a good thing.

And more money for school resource officers, maybe a good thing, probably not, given that school resource officers have been found not to deter school shootings, and to lead to dramatically increased criminalization of routine school disciplinary issues.

And more money for updating the radio communications system, a real issue in a county the size of the state of Rhode Island.

None of what Smith cites as priorities outweighs the importance of transparency.

“I think a vote to rescind the motion is a vote against our law enforcement. It’s a vote against our safety. It’s a vote against our transparency,” said Scott Seaton, the South River District representative on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, who in May had offered the motion, approved by a 5-2 vote, creating a fund account for individuals to be able to contribute toward the purchase and installation of body and dashboard cameras for sheriff’s deputies.

“You can’t say you are for body cameras and vote to rescind, because that is logically incoherent. If you are for body-worn cameras, you should seek any funding of the cameras that will reduce the tax burden on residents,” Seaton said at this week’s Augusta County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Seaton was arguing against a request from the sheriff that the account be closed. The board ultimately voted 5-1 to side with Smith, who had, shamefully, walked a fine line bordering on bringing race into the discussion in pleading his case.

“I have absolutely no desire to take one penny from Nexus, Black Lives Matter, their protesters, or whatever name they choose to use,” Smith said.

Yeah, yikes; that’s not even a fine line there.

The sheriff just outright said there that he doesn’t want money from Black Lives Matter, which took part in protests against the lack of transparency after two officer-involved shootings involving Augusta County sheriff’s deputies in May 2021.

Without body and dash cams, the investigation into these types of incidents ends up being an our word against theirs kind of thing, as the critics have noted.

The protests last summer devolved into more along those lines, with several demonstrators charged by the sheriff’s office with noise violations and disorderly conduct, and some of those charged filing suit against the county alleging violations of their constitutional rights.

“They don’t care about my deputies. They don’t care about me,” Smith said. “I have 12 lawsuits. I’ve been sued for being a homophobe. I’ve been sued for seizures of cellphones, shooting a dog, being racist, chilling their speech, and Fourth Amendment violations.

“These are paid people pushing an agenda,” Smith said. “This is not the silent majority of Augusta County. This is not the people that elected you or me to keep this county safe.”

The critics, to the sheriff, are “paid people pushing an agenda.”

He might as well just go all-out Bull Connor circa 1963 and call them “outside agitators.”

Seaton called the move to close out the public account “a black eye on Augusta County.”

The bigger black eye is the sheriff, for whom transparency in the form of body and dash cams should be priority #1, but instead has been fighting them tooth and nail, using every excuse in the book.

It’s apparent that transparency in the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office won’t come with Donald Smith in office.

The next election for sheriff is in 2023. It’s time for a change.

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