Walker County sheriff on lack of dash cams: 'If you had everything, you'd still be missing something'

Walker County sheriff on lack of dash cams: 'If you had everything, you'd still be missing something'

June 8th, 2019 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Walker County Deputy Harley Elliott is sworn in to testify during the Robert Eric Owenby court case Monday, June 3, 2019 in Walker County Superior Court in LaFayette, Georgia. Owenby is charged with two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of obstruction of officers, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and other charges.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Only one out of every seven Walker County patrol cars have dash cams, but Sheriff Steve Wilson said increasing video footage is not a priority.

"I just don't have the funding for that," he told the Times Free Press last week. "I've always tried to put the funding in other areas, like salaries. We just bought new handguns last year, updated all of our new handguns. That was quite expensive. With Tasers, we try to outfit all our deputies with Tasers. That was quite expensive. It's like a pecking order. You try to peck with everything that can do you the most good. You're not going to get everything right. I guess if you had everything, you'd still be missing something."

The issue came up during last week's trial of Robert Eric Owenby, 43, who was accused of shooting at a Walker County deputy and sergeant in November after a chase through Rossville ended in a secluded area. Owenby said the deputy fired first. The deputy said Owenby fired first. There was no video.

The jury sided with the deputy and convicted Owenby on 11 of 14 charges Wednesday, including two counts of aggravated assault. With Owenby's long rap sheet — including assault on police officers two decades ago — Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. sentenced him to 50 years in prison.

Still, juror Chris Barrett said the department's lack of technology surprised everyone deciding the case. They ultimately chose the deputy's version because a crime scene investigator discounted a key part of Owenby's statement. A shell casing found in the dirt indicated Owenby opened fire in front of his car door. He had told an investigator he ran away from the car, only shooting in self defense after the deputy's 9 millimeter bullets whizzed past.

Video would have been more definitive, Barrett said. He believes Owenby wouldn't have bothered taking the case to trial.

"It was embarrassing that the county doesn't see that as a priority," Barrett said. "We were all back there saying, 'This is ridiculous.'"

"I'm from the old school, kind of," Wilson said. "If you've got two police officers testifying to the same facts, to me that's pretty credible. Why should anyone question that testimony? Why should you spend thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars on cameras?"

Of 27 Walker County patrol vehicles, four have cameras. By comparison, 40 of 58 vehicles have cameras in Whitfield County, as well as 45 of 59 vehicles in Catoosa County.

Whitfield County Capt. Clay Pangle said the department also has body cameras for each patrol deputy and narcotics detective. (Chattooga County Sheriff Mark Schrader said his department has no dash cameras in its 13 vehicles, though all 13 patrolmen have body cameras.)

At about $5,000 each, outfitting Walker County's other 23 patrol cars with cameras would cost about $115,000. Wilson has less money to play with than his neighboring sheriffs. Walker County budgeted about $8 million to the sheriff's office last fall, compared to about $9.7 million in Catoosa County and $15 million in Whitfield County. At the same time, Walker County has about half as many patrol vehicles, according to figures provided to the Times Free Press by all three departments.

Wilson said dash cameras should not take priority because traffic enforcement is not a focus. First, his staff needs to run the jail, secure the court house and serve civil papers. They also need to answer domestic calls and take reports of property crimes like thefts and burglaries. Traffic enforcement falls somewhere below.

But traffic issues arise at any time. Before the shooting, Elliott testified that he followed Owenby's car near Wilson Road because he failed to signal for a turn. Owenby hit the accelerator and fled because other law enforcement agencies took out warrants against him.

It is possible that dash cameras could come into play on cases beyond just the reason for a traffic stop, Wilson conceded.

"It might catch some of the activity," he said. "It would not be a total waste of dollars, if you were able to have them and afford them."

Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Public Defender David Dunn said juries should expect to see dash cam footage. They cut through conflicting testimonies. In some DUI cases, Dunn said video benefited his clients. Sometimes officers don't administer a sobriety test the right way, or they had no good reason to stop a driver in the first place.

Predictably, he doesn't agree with Wilson's assessment that juries should believe two officers who give the same account.

"While most officers are good, solid, honest people, there are some who aren't and change the facts to suit the case," Dunn said. "That's why it's important. That's why we have trials. If we convicted people just off an officer's say so, we wouldn't have any need for judges and juries."

A debate over dash cams feels antiquated in 2019, the way a discussion about body cameras may feel in two decades. As video cameras became smaller and cheaper, departments used cameras in patrol cars in the early 1980s.

A couple of outside groups helped, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. To increase DUI convictions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving paid for dash cams. Some insurance companies followed MADD's lead, hoping better drunk driving enforcement would decrease crashes.

In the 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Administration paid for cameras for local departments. The administration believed video footage convinced jurors that drivers did, in fact, give officers consent to search their vehicles. In major drug busts, critics doubted defendants coughed up the evidence so easily.

Cameras became more popular in the late 1990s, fueled by support from police and community activists — groups that rarely see eye to eye. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $21 million to state police and highway patrol agencies to pay for 5,000 cameras.

While about 3,400 of those departments' cars had cameras in 2000, the number increased to 17,500 by 2002. As of 2013, the most recent figures collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of local police departments had dash cameras.

Steve Blevins, who retired last year after a 34-year career with the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office and Fort Oglethorpe police, juries changed as video became more prevalent. The roots of the change run deeper than just court trials, though. It is evidence of a cultural shift over the last four decades. People are less likely to take someone's word than they used to — from the White House down to the court house.

"Juries within this generation demand that kind of evidence," Blevins said. "Nobody believes a police officer anymore. They don't believe what they say. They want video evidence that will confirm what we're saying. It's the world we're living in. We've got reality TV: People can see anything and everything."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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