Body cameras are coming to the Ronceverte Police Department.
Thanks to a grant from the federal Department of Justice, Ronceverte Police Chief Jerry Hopkins will soon be the first in the city’s history to run a department with body cameras.
“I’ve basically worked on getting the cameras since I became chief [in early] 2020, trying to figure out the prices,” explained Hopkins. “A good one will run you about $1,500 per cam. … In the future, I think that every police department is going to have to have body cams. It’s accountability to the police department and accountability to the public. Let’s say you’ve got an officer [with an attitude], and I really don’t have any of those, it helps control their attitude.”
How does a body camera help? The footage can provide evidence in court, keep situations less volatile, and keeps officers safe.
“It helps us with the case,” Hopkins explained. “It’s a live view of what went on that day, whatever that may be. [It can be hard for officers and the public,] especially with the atmosphere we have now with police. [We haven’t had many issues with the public, but] we’ll have some unruly person here and there [saying things] but as far as a police officer doing something to someone and us getting sued over it, no. Everybody has stayed in the policies and guidelines of the department and we shouldn’t have a problem.”
Although Hopkins noted there were no significant issues with the department, with either the public or an officers, one case in the past few years shows how footage of an incident can change the narrative that emerges around it.
Former Ronceverte Police Chief, and current Alderson Police Chief, J.R. Rusty Byer Jr. was placed on administrative leave then fully reinstated by the city following an internal investigation into a video aired on WVVA involving the arrest of Gavin Alderman by Byer in April of 2018. The video appeared to show Byer kick Alderman in the Ronceverte Police Station as he was handcuffed to a knocked over chair.
The investigation, as explained in a statement from Ronceverte “found no evidence substantial inappropriate force in Chief Byer’s treatment of the subject involved” and concluded it was “clear … that Chief Byer’s rapid response saved three vulnerable residents of the city of Ronceverte from the very real possibility of physical harm within their own home.”
However, the incident might never have come to light or been believed without the security footage. Hopkins noted that this was a two-way street, keeping everyone honest with the stories that emerge from their interactions with police.
“The public can’t say the officer did something to them and the officer can’t get out of line with the public,” Hopkins said. “It saves everybody, it balances everybody out. … No one except for a supervisor will be able to do anything with it. [No one can say] ‘well I want to get rid of this’ and try to mark it off. If anybody tampers with the camera, there will be repercussions.”
Another big player for the city was Administrator Pam Mentz, who made the application to the Department of Justice.
“This was the fiscal year 2021 Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program,” explained Mentz. “It was supporting different agencies, so I downloaded the grant. It was competitive, we submitted for that, and we did get it. … Anybody has access to any kind of grant available. I have been trying to look at all kinds of grants the city, in general, may qualify for with some of our funding. I’ll go through there and look at things I think we might be a good prospect for—I’ll put in for those.”
The grant is split into two parts—Ronceverte was successful in getting half of the total grant.
“Our part was close to $4,800,” Mentz said. “The camera equipment is that expensive. We were trying to get things that were more expensive. … We did not get the administrative part of it. Going through it, you realize that you’ve got insurance to put on the cameras, you’ve got a policy you need to enforcement. You might want to have someone train [the department] on the cameras. There’s a lot of different administrative things you can put in for also, … but we did not. We were just able to get the money for the actual cameras.
Mentz also noted the system could eventually end up compatible with another big upgrade for law enforcement in Greenbrier County. The Greenbrier County Commission previously approved the Motorola Flex CAD (computer-aided dispatch) and records system and services agreement during their December 2020 meeting, agreeing to massively upgrade the county’s dispatching and policing technology infrastructure.
According to Greenbrier County Homeland Security Director Mike Honaker, the CAD system means that officers will be able to “run drivers licenses checks, criminal histories, see if [someone is] wanted.” Honaker also explained it also allows the 911 dispatchers to send a map and directions of where a call is allocated “directly to the terminal for what emergency they’re responding to.”
This equipment can also be expensive, the reason more grants are in the works for the Ronceverte Police Department after the body cameras are received.
“We’re trying to get help with some of the [equipment] they’re needing for when the 911 center converts over [to the new system],” Mentz said. “The department will have to have a different type of [laptop notebook] for that. We’re working on trying to find something for that as well. One quote was $32,000, we’re working very aggressively to get it, hopefully, we’ll have good news on that.”
The cameras are anticipated to be in service around four to six weeks in the future, shipping and other factors depending.
At a Ronceverte City Council meeting earlier this year, Mayor Deena Pack celebrated the upcoming cameras, thanking Mentz and Hopkins for working towards the goal.