POUND — Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III said he will seek a state attorney general’s opinion on issues surrounding the status of Pound’s police department and its records and evidence.
Slemp’s action follows a month of dispute among Pound Town Council and Police Chief Tony Baker, who was furloughed for 60 days along with part-time police officer and former town attorney Tim McAfee on a 3-2 vote April 20.
The action includes negotiating a 60-day contract for 24-hour police coverage of the town by the county pending a council decision to:
• rebuild the town police department;
• work out an agreement with the county, or;
• pull back any police coverage of unincorporated areas around the town.
That leaves the town without an active police department, since four other officers resigned before the furlough.
The council action also demanded that Baker, McAfee and other officers return their equipment, vehicles and all keys to the department by April 25.
Baker, in an April 24 email to Town Manager Drew Mullins, called council’s vote “unlawful” and refused to comply because of the need to secure the contents of the police department’s evidence locker.
“Accordingly, we are not relinquishing control of the evidence room or permitting non law enforcement officers to have access to information saved on police computers,” Baker wrote. “We have discussed this issue with several persons, including legal counsel, and everyone has stated the obvious, which is, that we cannot voluntarily comply with this order.”
Baker has not responded to Times News requests for an interview.
Mullins on Wednesday said that all town-owned police vehicles, equipment and keys and codes to everything except the evidence locker have been returned to the town. The agreement with the sheriff’s department to patrol the town has also been extended to 30 days and to 24-hour coverage until a long-term agreement can be finalized.
A public hearing is required for extension beyond 30 days.
One vehicle had been a topic at council meetings leading into April — ownership of the Ford 150 pickup truck used by McAfee. Mullins said research of records found that McAfee owned the truck, with the town providing lights, radio gear and insurance while the vehicle was used on police business.
The police equipment in McAfee’s truck has been returned and the town insurance stopped, Mullins said.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Slemp said the status of the evidence locker and investigative records still leaves open legal issues. While Baker keeps access to the evidence locker and investigative records, he is not on duty because of the furlough.
“The (Virginia) Department of Criminal Justice Services says nothing in its normal policies about this type of situation,” Slemp said. “Situations like this are uncommon where a police department closes.”
Slemp said that Virginia Code section 15.2-1722 does state that securing the custody of all records of a local law enforcement department is the responsibility of the police chief or sheriff of the jurisdiction.
“If a new chief is hired, they would take control of the records that that would resolve the situation,” Slemp said, adding that Baker’s furlough status raises questions about the status of the town’s police records.
Slemp said he plans to file a request for an AG opinion to determine Baker’s status concerning the police records and evidence and what to do if the town chooses to disband the department.