WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Va. (WVEC) -- An unexpected partnership, which is causing some to say, “That couldn’t have happened,” could affect your safety.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia teamed up with a Virginia sheriff's office to work on two controversial topics: use of force and body cameras.
The interaction has ended in praise, not criticism, with the ACLU calling the Westmoreland County Sheriff's Office and its policies "progressive."
It seems unusual, given the fact that we often see the ACLU at odds with law enforcement, but ACLU leaders actually are holding up the sheriff's office's policies as a model for what police across the Commonwealth should do.
The fact of the matter is whether body-worn cameras or cameras attached to their equipment, police officers across the country are being recorded. In many cases, those encounters and the footage of them have stirred controversy nationwide and here in Virginia.
We've shown you videos of use of force by police that was caught on camera, caught on officers' own cameras. A Suffolk Police officer yells “I don’t want to shoot you, bro.” Stephen Rankin’s Taser camera captured him ordering William Chapman to “take your hand out of your pocket.”
“We just wanted to make sure that everything was the right fit,” said Westmoreland County Sheriff C.O. Balderson, explaining his reason for asking the ACLU to review his policies on use of force and body cameras.
“We wanted to make sure we had everything up to date as far as our policies,” he told 13News Now.
The move surprised ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga.
“That's unusual,” she stated. “He's the first person in law enforcement in Virginia certainly who's asked us to look at his use of force policy.”
She said one of the most important aspects of the policy is on the very first page. It reads: "The Sheriff's Office guiding value when using force shall be reverence for human life…"
“If there was any question whatsoever in our policy that that wasn't what the fact actually is, we just want to eliminate it right off the bat,” Balderson described.
Deputies in Westmoreland County are trained on a use of force model. It correlates a suspect's actions with a deputy's response, starting with verbal commands then running to the need to use a baton or a gun.
“I can't say that someone can't run from me and you’re just talking to. All of the sudden, it could go from me and you talking to use of deadly force,” Balderson relayed. “It's all based on what the circumstance is based on what that deputy sees at that time.”
The policy also spells out what happens in the aftermath of a use of force incident. It says whether the use of force was reasonable should be judged from the perspective of the officer on scene, not 20/20 hindsight. According to the policy, that judgment will be made by an independent agency, not the sheriff's office, itself.
“Anybody who cares about accountability and transparency should welcome the idea,” Gastañaga said. “It's important for objectivity.”
That objectivity can also be accomplished through the lens of a camera worn by every one of Balderson's deputies. The Sheriff's perspective on using the body cams trickles down to those on the streets.
“A body camera, I think is a great idea to have to cover our end and protect the citizens, as well,” Deputy Danny Reynolds explained.
The policy states deputies are required to record all law enforcement related encounters and activities. The guiding principle written in all capital letters is: "IF IN DOUBT, RECORD IT."
Deputies have to wear the body cameras for their entire shifts. When they get sent to a call they start recording.
At no point can any deputy delete any of the footage. At the end of his/her shift the body camera gets put into a docking station and the footage gets downloaded.
The deputies can't edit the video. If they are involved in a use of force incident, they cannot view the footage before making an official statement.
Members of the public are, in fact, allowed to see what was recorded.
We asked the sheriff if he will release body camera footage if something happens and the public wants to see exactly what went down.
"Our policy I certainly believe outlines that procedure of how it will be done, and yes, we will do it,” Balderson responded.
While the ACLU is calling these particular policies progressive, we wanted to play devil's advocate and ask the questions other law enforcement might have.
Laura Geller: "What would you say to a police chief who says, 'Well, those are great policies for Westmoreland County that's 250 square miles and has fifteen officers, but in my more urban jurisdiction, it's not going to work?’”
Claire Gastañaga: "I would say the opposite, which is if the sheriff in Westmoreland County can do it, any department in Virginia can do it, particularly the ones with more resources.”
Gastañaga said the ACLU has already given the policies to other Virginia police departments as examples of what the agency would like to see.