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Line of Duty Act expansion fails in General Assembly

One of the bills that failed to pass the General Assembly this year would have provided benefits to private police officers who are killed or disabled in the line of duty. Advocates say they'll bring it back to the table for the third time next year. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Two private police officers have been murdered on the job in our area in the past two years.

In 2022, Campus Police Officer John Painter was killed at Bridgewater College alongside Campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson. The shooter, Alexander Wyatt Campbell, pled guilty last month and was given two life sentences, as WHSV reported.

Then, last year, Wintergreen Police Officer Chris Wagner II was shot and killed with his service weapon while attempting to subdue a man who had attacked his friends with a steak knife. As the News Leader reported, Maryland resident Daniel Barmak was charged with aggravated murder and other felonies, and the case is scheduled to go before a grand jury next week.

Both the Wintergreen Police Department and Bridgewater Campus Police are private agencies. Officers' salaries are paid for by the private entities they serve, rather than taxpayer dollars. However, they go through the same training as public law enforcement, Wintergreen Police Chief Dennis Russell explained.

Chief Dennis Russell joined the Wintergreen Police Department in 2008.
Wintergreen Police Department
Chief Dennis Russell joined the Wintergreen Police Department in 2008.

DENNIS RUSSELL: We all have attended a police academy that every police officer, that every sheriff's deputy, that every trooper has attended. I mean, we carry the same certifications.

If Wagner and Painter had been working for public law enforcement agencies, their families would have each received $100,000 from the Virginia Line of Duty Act Fund. But currently, private agencies are excluded from the fund. A bill that would have let them participate failed in the General Assembly for the second time this year.

RUSSELL: When Chris was murdered, he left a family in need. … He went to a disturbance where people were stabbed. He went to protect people. … He gave his life, and I feel like – I feel like the commonwealth turned their back on him.

Wintergreen Resort has had its own small police force since 1978. It's one of nine private police departments that were recognized by the General Assembly in 2015, although one of them, Massanutten Resort's, disbanded in 2020. The General Assembly also recognized nine private college campus police departments, including Bridgewater and Liberty University. State legislators would have to pass another law to create any new private forces.

DANA SCHRAD: The General Assembly already can restrict the growth of private law enforcement agencies.

Dana Schrad is the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

SCHRAD: But that is no reason, at this time, to treat the existing ones … who have complied with all the laws and the certifications and the reporting requirements that other law enforcement agencies have to follow, and then not allow them to participate in this program for their officers. I think it's shameful.

Public law enforcement agencies pay an annual premium into the fund for each of their officers. So there's no cost to the state to allow the private police in, and Schrad said that would not raise rates for everyone else.

SCHRAD: The more folks you have paying premiums in, the stronger the fund is for anybody who might need it. And frankly, more often than not, it's needed by officers, firefighters, et cetera in the public sector, but that doesn't negate the fact that we lost not one, but two, private agency law enforcement officers in the last couple of years.

State Senator Mark Obenshain represents the counties of Page, Rockingham, Highland, Bath, and part of Augusta County.
Senate of Virginia
State Senator Mark Obenshain represents the counties of Page, Rockingham, Highland, Bath, and part of Augusta County.

State Senator Mark Obenshain introduced the bill. This year, it passed the Senate unanimously, but ran into opposition in the House public safety subcommittee, and ultimately died in the appropriations committee. Advocates say delegates may have misunderstood where these departments come from. Delegate Sam Rasoul, chair of the public safety subcommittee, did not respond to WMRA's interview requests. Here's Senator Obenshain.

MARK OBENSHAIN: I can explain what I understand to be some of the concerns. One was that, somehow, these private police departments like Wintergreen would somehow give rise to the ability of neighborhoods in northern Virginia or in suburbs to create their own police departments, and that it was somehow creating a precedent, which is just not accurate. In order to have a private police department, there has to be an addition to the code of Virginia. It's not something that anybody can just set up.

Obenshain explained that there is a precedent for letting private entities into the Line of Duty Act, though, with volunteer fire companies and rescue squads.

Jesse Rutherford is a member of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors.
Nelson County
Jesse Rutherford is a member of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors.

In Nelson County, proponents of the bill are already preparing to advocate for it next year. Jesse Rutherford serves on the Board of Supervisors there.

JESSE RUTHERFORD: Here's the reality of it – a private police officer, he has the same risk of life to himself just as any other deputy does. He's responding to a lot of the same calls. He is also assisting deputies and state police in certain situations that may be happening outside of their borders.

Nelson County Sheriff Mark Embrey said it's a matter of fairness that a Wintergreen officer gets the same benefits that his deputies receive. The two agencies work together – they have an agreement that allows Wintergreen officers to patrol the Nellysford area near the resort, and they plan to start training together for mass casualty incidents.

MARK EMBREY: Our deputies couldn't do our job without the assistance of Wintergreen. … We would have to cover the Wintergreen resort, and we don't have enough officers for that. We would be spread way too thin, so they are an essential part of the community. They are absolutely vital.

If the bill succeeds on its third time around, it wouldn't retroactively benefit Wagner's family. But it would help officers like him who, in the future, die in the line of duty.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.