Body cameras, software, gas meters, new police cruisers among additions to area public safety departments
By Joe Beck
The gunshots that took the life of a Woodstock man as he struggled with law enforcement officers on the night of July 20 proved to be an unlikely catalyst for technological change among several police agencies in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
A Virginia State Police investigation into the shooting death of William Henry Long, 34, proved the worth of a body camera being worn by two Woodstock officers involved in the incident. Long slashed Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office deputy Tom Frazier across the neck with a knife before Frazier fired the two fatal shots that ended the confrontation.
Shenandoah County Commonwealth's Attorney Amanda Wiseley cited video footage obtained from the Woodstock officers' cameras as a key piece of evidence in concluding that all four officers involved in the scuffle had acted properly and would not be charged.
Woodstock officers ha
d been outfitted with the cameras since the beginning of the year on an experimental basis. Now Police Chief Eric Reiley says he is ready to make a full-fledged commitment to making the cameras a regular addition to the uniform worn by officers in his department. Reiley said the cameras helped clarify what happened in the chaotic moments leading up to the shooting, thus providing dramatic evidence of the advantages they offer.
"The officers had just begun using them," Reiley recalled. "Certainly, when you have a critical incident like that, it's a huge benefit to investigators to go back and look at what we had and corroborating the officers' accounts."
Reiley said the department obtained "great results" as it continued to test different camera types and models later in the year.
Woodstock is not the only police agency where officers are likely to be wearing cameras on a permanent basis in 2013.
After the investigation into the Long shooting concluded, Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter decided his deputies would begin field-testing cameras.
Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office Maj. Scott Proctor said the Sheriff's Office is in the final stages of field-testing and would be making a final purchasing decision within 30 to 60 days.
"We're getting close to purchasing time," he said.
Proctor said the field-testing showed the cameras' technology has "come a long way" since the Sheriff's Office first considered them two or three years ago.
Questions about their durability and the absence of models specifically designed for law enforcement led to a decision to drop the idea, he said.
Last summer's shooting revived interest in the technology, and the field- testing results since then have shown an overall improvement in quality, Proctor said.
"It's gone well overall," he said of the field tests.
The Warren County Sheriff's Office is also in the process of acquiring body cameras for deputies.
Lt. Roger Vorous said field-testing began in late November and early December. The overall results have led department officials to seek a state criminal justice grant that would pay for 10 of the devices at a cost of $900 each.
Vorous called the cameras "extremely helpful" to investigators in evaluating the actions of deputies during tense, emotionally charged confrontations at crime and accident scenes.
"Things can happen in a split-second," Vorous said. "If there's a camera there, it can capture what happened and what's going on with no second guessing."
Vorous said cameras also make it easier for deputies to submit more accurate incident reports by allowing them to review the video footage as they write.
"The community we serve and protect out there knows we have this on, so that helps," he said.
Body cameras are far from the only pieces of new equipment and technology that public safety workers hope will allow them to perform their jobs more effectively in the future.
Here are some other examples:
Chief Richard Mabie of Warren County Fire and Rescue Services said his agency recently bought seven laptop computers for the emergency operations center in the new Public Safety Building.
The laptops, obtained with the help of a grant from the state Department of Emergency Management, will allow local officials to stay in contact with the state's emergency operations center in Richmond when the need arises, Mabie said.
"It's a better way of communicating, especially with widespread disasters," Mabie said.
Warren County firefighters also will be able to work more safely with new handheld gas monitors that are designed to detect the presence of explosive gas leaks in buildings, Mabie said.
Front Royal police have high hopes that newly purchased telecommunications software will make it easier to transmit crime data and other information among patrol officers.
Kathie Scott, the department's communication supervisor, said, "It does a lot for officer safety by keeping them a little better informed. They can do reports in their cars instead of coming in the station to do them."
Scott said the new software, which has been up and running since Dec. 17, replaces a program that was 16 or 17 years old.
"It's working out very well," she said of the new software.
The outfitting of Shenandoah County firefighters and EMTs with new self-breathing apparatus is almost complete after a year of purchasing.
Fire Chief Gary Yew said 116 units are in place with about 20 more to follow. The self-breathing apparatus includes the tank that firefighters and EMTs wear on their backs and supplies them with air during fires and other emergencies, Yew said.
Yew said the equipment is little changed from the units it replaces, but it provides more standardization. In the past, fire and EMT companies have made their own purchases from multiple vendors, he said.
"It eliminates some risk because firefighters have had to be familiar with so many different styles," Yew said.
New patrol cars
Winchester police will have three new cars patrolling the streets soon, two of them marked Ford Tauruses, and one unmarked Ford Crown Victoria.
Lauren Cummings, a police community relations specialist with the department, said the cars eventually will replace older vehicles that are approaching 100,000 miles.
"We've gone a number of years without purchasing vehicles because of the economy and lack of funding, and now we're just sort of playing catch up," Cummings said.
Cummings said an unmarked car has arrived but is not yet in service, and two marked cars are "on their way."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com