POUND — A two-hour public hearing on the future of the police department and its two remaining employees led to the town council disbanding the force and dismissing furloughed Police Chief Tony Baker on Tuesday.
The council voted 3-2, with Mayor Stacey Carson breaking the tie, to disband the department effective at midnight on Tuesday on budgetary grounds and after hearing more than 75 residents, business owners and people living just outside the own limits.
The majority of the commenters — in-person and via electronic messaging — specifically called for the firing of Baker and part-time officer and former Town Attorney Tim McAfee. Baker and McAfee were furloughed in April as council members began discussions on possible cost savings from eliminating the department.
McAfee, who was dismissed as town attorney earlier this year, still has a pending $1.32 million breach of contract lawsuit against three council members and the town over his firing from that position.
The majority of Tuesday’s commenters also urged eliminating the police force. Many commenters called for allowing the Wise County Sheriff’s Department to police the town the same way it polices non-incorporated areas of the county or to continue an interim agreement for 24-7 police coverage by county deputies.
Some residents said they favored a trial period with county policing coverage before adopting a three- officer force or a hybrid police/deputy coverage. A consistent demand by all but about three commenters was for no return of officers under the Baker-led force.
“Until you get your finances under control, I don’t believe you need to have a police department,” former council member Terry Short said, opening the night’s comments.
In the later council vote, member Glenn Cantrell objected to Clifton Cauthorne’s motion to break up the department. Cantrell claimed that Baker had been hired for a six-year term in 2018. After examination of the July 2018 meeting minutes when Baker was appointed, Town Attorney Charles Wright opined that the appointment term was not binding on subsequent councils. One new council member had been elected since that meeting — Marley Green — who voted with Cauthorne and Carson to disband the department.
Wright also outlined a Tuesday letter from Wise County and Norton Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III regarding control of the department’s evidence room. Baker in April refused to surrender his key to the room, stating in a letter to the council that no civilians could have access to the room because of state law regarding chain-of-custody of evidence and files.
“It is clear, however, under existing Virginia law,” Slemp wrote, “that no civilian may be in possession of the police department records or evidence.”
No non-law enforcement civilian can take possession of the evidence room keys, Slemp said, and exclusive access by a non-police civilian could be in unlawful possession of drugs in that room.