In Virginia, an officer with a private police department must meet all of the same training requirements as other state law enforcement officers. But if that private police officer is killed in the line of duty, their family is not eligible for the same benefits.
In light of Wintergreen Police Officer Mark Christopher “Chris” Wagner II’s death in a shooting June 16, Nelson County officials and state legislators are looking to change that statute.
Wagner, 31, was the first law enforcement officer to respond to a residence on Arrowhead Lane in the Wintergreen community of Nelson County on Friday, after an emergency call came to the Wintergreen Police Department about two people being assaulted. Wagner encountered Maryland man Daniel M. Barmak in the woods and a struggle ensued over Wagner’s department-issued handgun, according to Virginia State Police. Wagner was shot and killed, and Barmak also suffered gunshot wounds, state police reported.
Barmak, 23, currently is charged with one count each of aggravated murder of a law enforcement officer, use of a firearm in commission of a felony, drug possession and malicious wounding. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 4 in Nelson General District Court.
Area police departments quickly responded with public support for Wagner, his family and the Wintergreen Police Department. Virginia State Police joined Wintergreen Fire and Rescue and Nelson County Sheriff’s Department personnel on Tuesday to pay homage to Officer Wagner along an overpass over Interstate 64 in Afton, as state police vehicles transported his body home to Stuart’s Draft along the interstate. Photos on the sheriff’s department’s Facebook page show law enforcement personnel saluting along the overpass next to an American flag hung from a Wintergreen Fire and Rescue fire truck’s ladder.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Nelson County Sheriff David Hill said in addition to his units, other police and sheriff’s departments along the escort’s route from Richmond to Stuart’s Draft honored Wagner from overpasses along I-64.
“It’s heartbreaking of course and it’s one of the things we don’t want to think about. It could easily be anyone at any point in time,” Hill said.
“He took an oath and he responded to those that were in need, so this speaks volumes of his character and integrity.”
Wintergreen Fire and Rescue posted to its public Facebook page Sunday, “The support shown for the public safety team at Wintergreen over the past 24 hours has been overwhelming.”
“It is very important that we support Officer Wagner’s family. Sadly, Wintergreen Police Officers don’t have the same benefits as public police officers. They’re required to complete the same academy, have the same authority, and do the same jobs, however, due to antiquated laws, they don’t have the same benefits.”
According to Virginia Code, a private officer is not entitled to benefits under the Line of Duty Act or under the Virginia Retirement System and is not a “qualified law enforcement officer” within the meaning of the federal Law Enforcement Safety Act. According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, there are 42 private law enforcement agencies in the state.
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Wintergreen Police Chief Dennis Russell organized a public fundraiser for Wagner’s family that as of Wednesday afternoon had raised $92,000. Local representatives intend to go further, though.
Chair of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors Jesse Rutherford said in a phone interview Wednesday he and West District Supervisor David Parr met with the Wintergreen Police Department on Sunday, and are working on a resolution to honor Wagner and endorse legislation to extend the line of duty benefits.
“Chris was a breadwinner for his family, is my understanding,” Rutherford said.
He thinks the families of deceased private officers deserve the same benefits as state officers, and wants the legislation change to also extend to animal control officers.
“Unfortunately, this is how we learned about it,” Rutherford said of the issue, adding as a county, Nelson wants to “support our own.”
Parr explained his stance on expanding the Line of Duty Act benefits in a statement.
“[Private Police Departments and Animal Control Officers] are not only integral parts of our overall public safety program in Nelson; they are essential components of public welfare in localities statewide. They protect and serve our citizens, putting their lives on the line every day, just as other covered positions do; and they should be afforded the same benefits.”
Rutherford reached out to and found support in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates with Sen. Mark Peake, a Lynchburg Republican, and Del. Ellen Campbell, a Rockbridge Republican.
Interviewed by phone Tuesday, Peake said he intends to sponsor a bill to change the code concerning private police officer’s line of duty benefits and plans on being the chief patron in the state Senate.
Peake said localities may protest about the cost, but that private police officers “put their lives on the line just like any other officer,” and if an officer is killed in the line of duty “their families shouldn’t suffer.”
According to the Virginia Line of Duty Act, the one-time payment for the surviving spouse and dependents of an officer killed in the line of duty is $100,000.
In an emailed statement, Campbell said, “I believe we have an obligation to take care of a fallen officer’s family. Public or private, officers like Chris Wagner are out in the community every single day putting their lives on the line to keep us safe.”
“The least we can do to thank them for their ultimate sacrifice is to make sure their families are eligible for line of duty benefits. I hope another family never has to experience what Officer Wagner’s family is experiencing right now, but if they do, I hope we will be able to take away one source of stress.”
An Amherst County official also expressed support for Nelson supervisors’ planned resolution. Amherst Board of Supervisors member Claudia Tucker asked the board during a meeting Tuesday to formally take up a stance on the matter in July.
“It would equal the playing field between those private officers and officers who serve our localities,” Tucker said. “Amherst County would have a dog in that fight because we have Sweet Briar [College] here. And so we would be in the same situation.”