2018-02-28 / Front Page

Top prosecutor spars with board over funding


Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport cited the additional workload of reviewing footage from body-worn police cameras, like this one, as the primary reason for curtailing prosecution of misdemeanors in the county. Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport cited the additional workload of reviewing footage from body-worn police cameras, like this one, as the primary reason for curtailing prosecution of misdemeanors in the county. Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport informed state and local elected officials earlier this month that his “understaffed” office will no longer prosecute misdemeanor offenses in Chesterfield as of May 1.

The county government’s response was unequivocal: if you want funding to hire additional attorneys, prove you need it.

In a letter to Davenport sent last Friday, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle noted that board members met with him last fall and made “several requests” for data regarding the impact to his office from the local police department’s use of body-worn cameras.

“This information was requested in order to help the board better understand your operations and aid in the consideration of current and future budget requests,” Jaeckle wrote. “To date, however, the Board of Supervisors has not received sufficient information … which makes it difficult for the board to weigh the associated budget requests against a worthy list of considerations from other departments, all of which have provided detailed justifications.”

Davenport, the commonwealth’s attorney in Chesterfield since 1987, has cited additional staff responsibilities from the police department’s body-worn camera program as the primary reason behind his decision to “curtail” prosecution of misdemeanors and other minor infractions in the county after April 30.

He notified Pamela O’Berry, chief judge of the Chesterfield General District Court, of the planned procedural change in a Feb. 8 letter that was copied to all members of the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Joe Casey and each of the county’s representatives in the General Assembly.

Davenport’s letter called it “a sad day,” but said the move was necessary “out of ethical and legal obligations” for his staff to be adequately prepared to prosecute felony charges.

In a telephone interview Monday morning, Jaeckle acknowledged she and her fellow board members were surprised to receive Davenport’s letter.

Col. Jeffrey Katz, the county’s new police chief, had recently met with Davenport to discuss body-worn cameras and develop a plan to reduce the burden on the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

“The next thing we know, there’s this letter,” Jaeckle said.

Asked if she considered it an attempt by Davenport to publicly pressure the Board of Supervisors for additional funding in the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget, Jaeckle said, “That was probably the purpose of it.” Casey is expected to present his proposed budget to the Board of Supervisors on March 14.

Davenport declined comment Monday morning.

Katz noted in a statement last week that his department is “still assessing the anticipated impact” of Davenport’s announcement on its operations.

“Obviously, we value and appreciate the close working relationship we have with Mr. Davenport and his staff and we respect his right to direct his office in a manner consistent with the expectations of his constituency,” he said. “In the meantime, we are assessing our body-worn camera policy to ensure that we are not bombarding the Commonwealth Attorney’s office with gratuitous footage.

“Like every new program, there will need to be periodic adjustments. Clearly, there is a need to balance operational transparency with efficiency.”

The Chesterfield Police Department implemented its body-worn camera initiative last year, in response to concerns from local civil rights advocates following a series of high-profile officer-involved shootings across the country.

Davenport’s letter to O’Berry claimed he was assured when the police department began the process of acquiring body-worn cameras that additional work generated for his office would be addressed.

“This has not happened,” he wrote. “These factors have been made known to our elected officials as well as those responsible for reviewing our staffing needs. I have met with county staff who make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. I have met personally with each board member. I have expressed privately and publicly the pressures that continue to come to bear on the staff of my office.”

Prosecutors must view all footage collected by body-worn cameras because they are legally obligated to turn over any exculpatory evidence to defendants prior to trial.

In his letter, Davenport suggested that responsibility has “overwhelmed” his office, which he claimed is currently understaffed by eight attorneys as determined by the Virginia Compensation Board.

The commonwealth’s attorney is a constitutional office in Virginia, meaning it is supposed to be primarily funded by the state government and supplemented by the locality.

According to Davenport’s letter, the state provides only enough funding for his office to prosecute all felony offenses, as mandated in the Code of Virginia.

“Nonetheless, for the past thirty years my staff has prosecuted all offenses as required, and in addition all misdemeanors and infractions where defendants have had counsel,” he wrote. “I have always felt that the police, law enforcement, the courts, the witnesses and especially victims deserve to have representation especially when the defendant does.”

In Jaeckle’s response, she appeared to reject Davenport’s claim that his office is understaffed, noting the Board of Supervisors allocated funding in the county’s fiscal year 2018 budget for 10 attorney positions and $850,000 in salary supplements for the state-funded positions.

The 10 locally funded positions “more than offset” the shortfall in state funding, Jaeckle noted.

In total, she claimed, the county currently provides $2.6 million to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office – or roughly 57 percent of its annual budget.

“I want to reiterate that the fair and equitable administration of justice remains a priority of the Board of Supervisors,” she wrote. “We recognize the importance of adequate representation for county residents, as well as the support it provides to our law enforcement professionals.” Jaeckle also requested clarification of the “curtailed representation” described in Davenport’s letter to O’Berry.

“Please let the board and the courts know which misdemeanors and/or infractions you will not be prosecuting. Moreover, please clarify which courts your plan would affect. This will help all of us better understand the impacts you anticipate,” she added.

In her Feb. 23 letter, Jaeckle noted that the Board of Supervisors remains open to having a dialogue with Davenport about the impact of body-worn cameras on his office, “but wishes to do so through the open exchange of data and information.”

That’s a significant departure from the way the county handled matters the last time a constitutional officer made a public play for increased local funding.

In April 2013, then-Circuit Court Clerk Judy Worthington threatened to cut her office’s non-statutory services to the county’s Circuit Court unless she was provided additional staff.

County Administrator Jay Stegmaier responded to Worthington’s ultimatum by moving seven locally funded positions out of her office and placing them under the direct supervision of the Circuit Court judges and the Sheriff’s Office.

Stegmaier’s action effectively reduced the clerk’s fiscal year 2014 budget by about $500,000.

Worthington retired in April 2014, citing health reasons. Wendy Hughes was elected later that year to finish out her term and won re-election in 2015.

More recently, there was friction between the commonwealth’s attorney and the Board of Supervisors over the process by which the board hired the county’s new police chief.

Davenport stormed out of the first meeting of the police chief recommendation committee last July, claiming “the fix was in” and the board was looking for political cover to bring in somebody from outside the county.

The board eventually selected Katz, formerly the police chief in Boynton Beach, Florida, over two long-serving internal candidates.

Davenport, who had been appointed to the recommendation committee by the county’s Circuit Court judges, decided to rejoin after consulting with Judge T.J. Hauler, chief judge of the Chesterfield Circuit Court.

In her interview Monday morning, Jaeckle said her board realizes the body-worn cameras have created additional work for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. She says it just wants the information it has requested from Davenport so it can assess the extent of that impact.

“We need to look at the data and see what it says,” she added. “Then we’ll make a decision from that point.” ¦

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