Despite running on a platform promising that the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office would maintain accreditation, after almost four years in office, Sheriff Donald Smith’s office has lost accreditation.
Smith has been a member of the office since 2003.
In a press release Wednesday, Smith said the agency “has worked extremely hard to identify and comply with the standards established by the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission (VLEPSC) to overcome some of the shortcomings in the agency that led to the removal of accreditation during the prior administration.”
Under Sheriff Randy Fisher, according to the press release, the agency’s “accreditation was forfeited” after funds were missing from the evidence room.
“Let me be clear, the integrity and credibility of the evidence room is not in question,” said Smith in the press release.
The investigator’s handling of evidence from the evidence room “is still pending investigation.”
“When I came into office as your Sheriff, my no. 1 priority was to rebuild the Sheriff’s office following a highly contested Sheriff’s election in 2015, and work on the cold cases that we ultimately solved to bring closure to their families,” Smith said in the press release.
Smith said he has been able to achieve “all of the goals” he set out to achieve when he ran for the office in 2015. Accreditation is his last goal to achieve.
“I am extremely proud of the work ethic and dedication of the men and women that make up the ACSO. Even though I am disappointed in yesterday’s outcome, you have my word that we are committed to achieving this goal and meeting the standards of the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission. “
In Wednesday’s press release, Smith said the agency has taken steps toward regaining accreditation with 100 percent audits of the evidence room performed annually, six new cameras added to the video surveillance of the evidence room, evidence training and handling training for deputies in the agency, and updates of policy and procedures, as well as digitization of policy and procedures “for deputies to have quick access via computer and/or smartphone.”
The press release stated that accreditation assessments include agency information, community information, assessment of written policies, static display of agency equipment, ride-along component, and property/evidence verification.
“Due to the ongoing criminal investigation from 2015 regarding the missing funds, the ACSO has 10,748 items of evidence that cannot be released or destroyed until this investigation has concluded,” the press release stated.
A mock accreditation assessment was conducted on Aug. 7 to prepare for the agency’s full-scale audit on Sept. 9 through Sept. 11. According to the release, another mock assessment was held Sept. 3.
“During the final audit assessment, my agency complied with three files that needed repair while the accessors were on site. These were corrected and noted to be in compliance with VLEPSC standards,” Smith said in the release.
Accessors requested that the agency change its policy to cover prisoner escape from temporary detention cells in the county courthouse, change its policy regarding warning shots, and requested that Smith “eliminate a temporary storage cabinet within the Narcotics Taskforce Office.”
The agency’s fourth infraction occurred during inspection of the evidence room. A piece of evidence, a ring identified as costume jewelry, retrieved from a burn barrel during a murder investigation was checked out of the room on Sept. 9, 2016, at 8:40 a.m.
This jewelry was removed two months after Smith took office, and in this month’s review was found to be of no value to the case for which it was initially collected.
Smith said in the release that he ordered the launch of an Internal Affairs investigation into the status of the ring, and the outcome is pending while the investigation is in progress.
Smith appeared before the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission on Oct. 8, regarding the agency’s accreditation.
“Though they noted substantial improvements in the agency and many positives, as a result of the missing costume ring, the board declined to grant accreditation for the ACSO at this time,” Smith said in the release.
He then met with Augusta County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Gerald Garber and his employees at the sheriff’s office to release the commission’s findings.
“As your sheriff, I am ultimately responsible for all of my employee’s actions. I have stressed to you, the citizens of Augusta County, that the ACSO would do our best to get things right and I fully take responsibility for falling short on this issue. I am committed to constant improvement and insuring our community is protected and ethically served,” Smith said.
The agency will seek an appeal of the commission’s decision in the coming days.