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Wednesday, 29 March 2017 14:17

Out of sight: Macon, Swain departments largely off-cam

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Smaller cities and counties with smaller tax bases can’t always afford the capital expenses of their wealthier neighbors — it’s a simple fact of life for rural Appalachian governments that often have to do without the luxuries afforded to the better-off.

Matters of public safety further illustrate the digital divide, but quite unlike a sprawling soccer complex or robust library system, scarce funding for expensive camera systems means officer safety and public accountability could suffer. 

Franklin Mayor Bob Scott comes from a law enforcement background, having spent a stint with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office before retiring from Western Carolina University Police. 

Scott’s first career, however, was in journalism, which may be why decades ago he wrote the very first grant applications for Macon County’s old in-car old videotape cameras. 

“They took up about half the trunk,” Scott laughed. 

The Franklin Police Department acquired 12 body cams for $300 each in 2016 thanks to some required spending by a local ABC store; Franklin Police Captain Danny Bates said that the department already had a server for data storage and bought a few external hard drives for backups. 

“They’re a good tool,” Scott said. “I think they protect the officer, too, especially in this day and time when there is a certain amount of animosity towards law enforcement.”  

Scott’s town is relatively well-off in relation to the rest of the far west; although the Macon County Sheriff’s Office no longer uses those bulky in-car videotape systems that took up half Scott’s trunk, they don’t seem to be much better off than when they did. 

Sheriff Robbie Holland said that the agency doesn’t employ body-worn cameras, but does have “a couple” of very old, very outdated cams. 

“They’re so old that if they break, the company that makes them will no longer fix them,” he said. 

But he — like every single agency head in The Smoky Mountain News’ four-county coverage area — wants them. 

“Absolutely,” Holland said. “It protects community and officers, relieves any doubt, resolves he-said-she-said complaints against officers, allows administrators to monitor their employees and also acts as a deterrent.”

Holland got a $190,000 quote for 26 in-car cams last year. 

Macon County’s average law enforcement spending is on the order of about $4.2 million per year, with just over $3 million going to salaries, wages and the like, which means Holland’s quote would represent an almost 20 percent increase in non-payroll spending. 

The Swain County Sheriff’s annual spending is about $1.5 million; Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said his department’s never had cams, and he hasn’t asked for them.

“It’s budgetary,” Cochran said. The Cherokee Indian Police Department has been discussing purchasing cameras over the past two years but has held off thus far due to uncertainty regarding dissemination of footage, evidentiary value and storage.

Bryson City Police Chief J.G. Jones’ administrative assistant Thomas Carswell said that the BCPD doesn’t have any cameras at the moment, but not because they don’t want them. 

“We only had them in two cars to begin with,” said Carswell, who also handles IT for the department. “We got a grant in the past, but those cameras lasted about a day beyond their warranty, like everything else in life.”

When the cameras began to break down, the department couldn’t afford repairs, so Carswell had to Frankenstein them.  

“I’ve made two into one,” he said. 

As to when they’ll buy replacements, Carswell couldn’t say. 

“The funds just aren’t there,” Carswell said. “If we had the money, we’d be glad to run them.” 

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