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Police chief proposes high-tech crime-fighting system

New Police Chief Robert Hassell recently appeared before a budget work session of the City Council and sought support for a proposed real time crime-fighting intelligence center, but he is going to go back, do more research and consult legal scholars.

Hassell faced questioning, particularly from Councilwoman Chris Miller and Councilmen Reuben Blackwell and Andre Knight.

The council before Hassell became the police chief on May 3 discussed having cameras to support present ShotSpotter technology. ShotSpotter is a system of sensors designed to detect, locate and alert the police of gunfire in real time.

During the June 2 budget work session, Hassell spoke about having a Fusus online platform for Rocky Mount as the best solution to meet the needs of the police department. Fusus is headquartered northeast of Atlanta and is in the business of unifying data and live video feeds into cloud-based crime-fighting centers.

A cloud-based system is one in which information is stored, managed and processed on a network of remote computer servers hosted on the internet, rather than on local servers or personal computers.

Hassell told the council having a Fusus platform for Rocky Mount would provide visibility via cameras not only managed by the municipality but also via the cameras of residents and businesses who give the police department access through partner agreements.

Hassell made clear to the council that participation in the platform by residents and businesses would be voluntary. Hassell also said that a community portal would be placed on the municipality’s website so participants can register their cameras. The registry would be set up to ensure the names of the partners remain anonymous.

He said the platform would be managed by the police department and would be at the municipality’s Emergency-911 call center.

He said there would be a series of phases to put the platform in place, with pre-planning first, followed by implementing the equipment, testing and an evaluation phase. He said if the platform passes the evaluation phase, then the police department will go live with the new system and the municipality will have cameras in the areas of ShotSpotter.

Miller raised questions about the proposal, particularly given that this is a time when everything seems to be hackable. Miller was referring to concerns about computer data being vulnerable to unauthorized access.

“What is the protection going to be that this system isn’t hacked and the bad guys, so to speak, have access to the knowledge of where these resources are and where the crime is happening?” Miller said.

Miller said, “It’s a double-edged sword,” sort of like English essayist George Orwell’s 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which focused on the character “Big Brother” controlling everyone’s lives.

“I mean, it’s a good thing that we know what the bad guys are doing, but the bad guys also know what the good guys are doing,” Miller said.

Hassell told Miller that a Fusus platform has the appropriate security measures in place and that the cameras proposed to be installed in Rocky Mount to support ShotSpotter would be visible.

Hassell said that Fusus platforms are in use by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office in the far western part of the state.

Blackwell, in his questioning, made clear he believes the emphasis should be on the need to make the community comfortable.

“I know we need more eyes, but I’m very concerned about targeting communities and neighborhoods with unintended consequences,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell said that while the objective is to reduce crime, “I’ve got an issue with cameras everywhere all over neighborhoods all the time.”

“I’m concerned about a pre-approval of the technology before we’ve worked out the policies,” he added. “I don’t have any issue with saying ‘reserve the funding,’ but I do have an issue with pushing the button and say, ‘Go live’ and we haven’t worked out our infrastructure prior to implementation.”

He also said of the proposal, “It’s sort of like we’re building it and flying it simultaneously.”

He made clear that he would first like to have more dialogue about some of the infrastructure involved and to know where there were any unintended consequences not thought about prior to implementation.

Hassell made clear that he would be happy to have a more in-depth discussion at a future council work session and that he knows Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson quite well.

Blackwell also wanted to know whether video footage from the cameras of those who agree to participate in the platform for Rocky Mount would belong to those people or the police department.

Hassell said footage in connection with a criminal case would become evidence and would not be released until that case is completely disposed of in the judicial system.

Blackwell asked whether the decision to release video for public viewing becomes a decision of law enforcement.

Hassell said that would be the decision of District Attorney Robert Evans and that regarding evidence in a case, the release of that video would have to be through Evans’ office. Hassell also said he and his team may have to look at some kind of an order from a judge to allow the release of that video to the public at that time.

Knight asked about a situation in which a camera at a residence of a person participating in the platform for Rocky Mount captured video of an incident across the street from that person’s residence. Knight wanted to know whether that person would be restricted from releasing that video.

Hassell said that once that video has been determined to be a part of some kind of investigation, then that could pose some restrictions. At the same time, Hassell said that he does not want to say something that is not accurate and that he would have more information for a future work session.

Mayor Sandy Roberson said, “I’ve heard everything everybody said and I absolutely get it. It’s crazy, scary, beneficial. I mean, it takes no vision to understand how this can be a two-edged sword, but I’m assuming two things.”

Roberson said he is assuming everything of concern here is really dealt with in the contractual relationship with a person or a business choosing to participate in the platform.

Roberson also said he is assuming that the police department or the district attorney could subpoena all of his video security footage and that he would be bound by the same issues in dealing with the context of an investigation of a crime.

Hassell told Roberson he is correct in that Evans could order him to provide his footage, but Hassell noted that a resident participating in the platform for Rocky Mount would be able to control which specific cameras at a location he or she wants the police department to be linked to.

Blackwell was quick to state he is not concerned about access.

“It’s control,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell asked about whether a resident participating in the platform for Rocky Mount could take video from a private camera and post that video on a blog, without fear of being prosecuted, if he or she believes an injustice occurred based on what the video showed.

Hassell said he will have a conversation with some legal scholars and make sure he has better answers for the council about those concerns.

“I assure you some of those concerns are mine,” Hassell said.

Assistant to the City Manager for Budget and Evaluation Kenneth Hunter told the council the cost of the proposed program for the fiscal year 2021-22, including the system of cameras supporting ShotSpotter, would be $122,272.

The council has been reviewing and discussing the proposed municipal operating budget for the fiscal year 2021-22.

School board votes to close Tar River Academy

The Nash County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to close Tar River Academy in its present form and vacate the building that it now occupies at 224 S. Pearl St. in Rocky Mount.

The Nash County Board of Education Administrative Services and Operations Committee last month approved a recommendation by Superintendent Steve Ellis to close the facility. The full school board voted in May to hold a public hearing in June on the closure as required by law.

That public hearing was scheduled for Monday during the regular meeting of the school board. However, no one signed up to speak at the hearing and no one spoke out on the issue at the meeting.

Tar River Academy, an alternative school in Rocky Mount designed to provide extra support to middle and high school students who struggle to fit into the framework of traditional schools in the district, has been operating in the former James Craig Braswell School building. But that 81-year-old building has outlived its usefulness, Shannon Davis, executive director of maintenance and facilities, told school board members last month.

“Tar River Academy is in need of a major renovation or be relocated to another campus,” Davis told members of the Administrative Services and Operations Committee last month. “The building is taking on moisture through the brick. The walls are plaster and the moisture is causing it to delaminate from the walls. The mechanical system needs to be totally renovated. The electrical system needs to be updated. The plumbing fixtures and restroom partitions need to be replaced. The dining room is in the basement and moisture is seeping through the walls.”

With the closure of the building, high school students assigned to Tar River Academy will begin meeting in the fall in the science building at Rocky Mount Middle School as that building is currently vacant, Davis said. That 16,000-square-foot structure served previously as the home of Tar River Academy. It will be upfitted and modified over the summer to make it better suited for the high school students of the school, Davis said.

Middle school students who would normally be assigned to Tar River Academy will now be assigned to the evening academies at their base schools. That program is being adapted to accommodate more students in the evening academies, which meet after the normal school day has ended.

Leondus Farrow Jr., assistant superintendent of student support services and operations for the school district, said at last month’s meeting that the change will have little effect on middle school students who were enrolled this year in Tar River Academy. Most of those students will either be returning to their traditional middle schools next year or will be moving on to high schools in the district.

Ellis recommended the closure of the facility after conducting a study of the potential effect of the closure of the school as required by state law. In that study, he concluded that relocating the school would be better for students and staff members.

“The school is moving less than a mile, and the new facility is much more suited for the ongoing education of high school students,” Ellis concluded in his report.

No decision has yet been made as to the deposition of the building at 224 S. Pearl St.

Convicted sex offender charged with kidnapping girlfriend


A 30-year-old man with a prior record — including for committing a sex offense — is charged by Rocky Mount police with committing felony second-degree kidnapping last month, records said.

Bobby Ray Lewis III is accused of confining Sara Alice Marie Black for the purpose of terrorizing her, Edgecombe County District Court records said.

Additionally, Lewis is charged by Rocky Mount police with committing misdemeanor assault on a female because he allegedly pulled one of Black’s arms, causing bruising, the records said.

Officers responded at 8:43 a.m. on May 17 to the 2300 block of Meadowbrook Road in East Rocky Mount, a police incident report said.

Specifically, officers responded to a report of a domestic disturbance and found out from the woman that her boyfriend, Lewis, had taken her cell phone and would not allow her to leave, police Cpl. Ricky Jackson said in a brief news release.

Lewis’ bond was set at $5,000, unsecured, with the terms of the bond making clear he cannot be within 500 feet of Black or her residence while the case is pending, Edgecombe County District Court records said. The bond is unsecured due to Lewis having a medical condition.

In North Carolina, an unsecured bond means an accused person does not have to come up with money to post a bond to avoid being jailed. If the accused fails to appear in court for a hearing, then the court can order the accused to pay the amount of that bond.

Lewis also is charged by the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office with committing felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury because on April 29 he attacked George Russell Thomas with a closed fist, Edgecombe County District Court records said.

Those records said Lewis also is charged by the sheriff’s office with committing felony failure to notify the last registering sheriff of a change of address on March 9, as he is required to do as a convicted sex offender.

Nash County District Court records said Lewis is charged by Rocky Mount police with felony obtaining property by false pretense on Oct. 8, 2020.

According to the Nash County District Court records, Lewis defrauded Alexis Davis of $96 by gaining access to her Chime bank account information with a phone she sold him and by using the information to fraudulently transfer the funds from that account.

State Public Safety records also said Lewis was convicted in 2018 in Nash County of attempted failure to provide notification of a change of address.

As for why Lewis is a sex offender, the public safety records said he was convicted in 2013 in Nash County for taking indecent liberties with a child.

The public safety records also show Lewis was convicted in the following years in the following counties for the following offenses:

  • In 2018 in Edgecombe County for obstructing justice.
  • In 2016 in Nash County for larceny.
  • In 2015 in Edgecombe County for resisting an officer.

Lewis had listed an address in the 500 block of Clyde Street, Edgecombe County District Court records said.

Eight Tar River sites fail water quality tests

Eight sites in the Tar-Pamlico watershed were classified as possibly unsafe for swimming in the second round of testing of Sound Rivers’ annual Swim Guide program.

The sites tested positive for fecal bacteria at numbers exceeding the recommended state and federal criteria for recreation, the organization announced.

The bacteria was located at Sunset Park in Rocky Mount, Tarboro’s River Road, the Town Common and Port Terminal in Greenville, Yankee Hall at Pactolus and Mason’s Landing, Havens Garden and Pamlico Plantation in Washington. Ten other testing sites along the Tar-Pamlico basin were safe for swimming.

Boaters, swimmers and their pets should avoid the water or practice caution at these sites, as exposure may come with an increased risk of gastrointestinal illness and skin infections, Sound Rivers reported.

Swim Guide is an international water-quality program conducted locally by Sound Rivers, a Washington, N.C.-based nonprofit that promotes conservation in the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse river basins.

Each week, a team of Sound Rivers’ volunteers gathers water samples at 46 popular recreation sites from the Raleigh-Durham area to the Pamlico Sound. The samples are tested for the bacteria E. coli by Sound Rivers’ staff and results are released to the public, providing an easy way to find out where it’s safe to swim.

Notifications are posted on an interactive map at www.soundrivers.org/swimguide and through text alerts. Text “SWIM” to 33222 for weekly water-quality text updates. For more information about Sound Rivers, visit soundrivers.org.

Eighteen sites are tested in the Tar-Pamlico River basin: at Rocky Mount — Tar River Reservoir and Sunset Park; at River Road near Tarboro; at Greenville — Town Common, Wildwood Park, Port Terminal and Yankee Hall; at Washington — Mason’s Landing, Washington waterfront, Haven’s Garden Boat Ramp, Chocowinity Bay at Cypress Landing, Swan Point, Broad Creek at Pamlico Plantation, Blounts Bay and Blounts Creek at Cotton Patch Landing; at Bath — Bonner Point and Plum Point; and Belhaven — Pungo River at Woodstock Point.

Police charge man with falsely imprisoning, assaulting girlfriend


A 44-year-old man with an extensive prior record is charged with false imprisonment of a woman late last month, records said.

Wayne Morgan Coley Jr. is accused of detaining Kathy Brum without her consent on May 20, Edgecombe County District Court records said.

Coley also is charged with assault inflicting serious injury because he attacked her to the point she suffered a broken left foot, the records said.

Both offenses are considered misdemeanors.

Officers found out that there had been an instance of domestic violence in the 100 block of Dalewood Drive in East Rocky Mount when they assisted a woman who arrived at the police department to report what had occurred, police Cpl. Ricky Jackson said in a brief news release.

The woman told officers that she and her boyfriend, Coley, had been involved in a physical altercation and that when she attempted to leave the residence, Coley took her phone and pulled her back inside, Jackson said.

The woman told officers that she tried numerous times to leave before giving up and going to sleep, Jackson said. She was able to leave the next morning while Coley was asleep.

Coley was subsequently located and apprehended, Jackson said.

In the meantime, Coley’s name has been continuing to appear in pending cases in the judicial computer system.

Nash County District Court records said that police early this month cited Coley for misdemeanor larceny.

According to those records, Coley on June 1 was halted in the 900 block of West Raleigh Boulevard for having stolen steaks worth $172.38 from Piggly Wiggly.

Nash County District Court records also said that police early this month arrested Coley and charged him with felony habitual larceny.

According to those records, Coley on May 30 stole air freshener worth $2.99 and air freshener worth $2.49 from the Sheetz convenience store in the 3700 block of North Wesleyan Boulevard.

Coley on June 4 was charged with having committed felony habitual larceny on May 30 because under state law he already has been convicted of at least four previous larcenies, the records said.

State Public Safety records said that Coley has a record dating back more than 2½ decades.

The public safety records said that Coley has been convicted the following years in the following counties for the following offenses:

  • In 2019 in Iredell County for breaking and entering a currency machine.
  • In 2018 in Edgecombe County for attempting to injure or kill a law enforcement animal and assault with a deadly weapon.
  • In 2013 in Rowan County for larceny of a motor vehicle and for speeding to elude or attempt to elude arrest.
  • In 2005 in Edgecombe County for possessing illegal drugs, larceny, larceny over $1,000 and misdemeanor breaking and entering.
  • In 2005 in Nash County for felony breaking and entering, larceny, larceny over $1,000, larceny of a motor vehicle, breaking and entering vehicles and possessing stolen goods.
  • In 2000 in Edgecombe County for felony breaking and entering and larceny.
  • In 2000 in Nash County for larceny.
  • In 1999 in Carteret County for breaking and entering vehicles and misdemeanor breaking and entering.
  • In 1998 in Nash County for larceny.
  • In 1995 in Edgecombe County for resisting an officer and obstructing justice.
  • In 1994 in Edgecombe County for violating drug laws, possessing illegal drugs, using/possessing drug paraphernalia and maintaining a place for controlled substances.

Coley listed an address in the 100 block of Dalewood Drive, Edgecombe County District Court records show.

Nash County Chief Deputy Brandon Medina told the Telegram that Coley’s bond was set at $8,000, unsecured, on the felony habitual larceny charge and that Coley was not jailed because the bond is unsecured.

In North Carolina, an unsecured bond means an accused person does not have to come up with money to post a bond to avoid being jailed. If the accused fails to appear in court for a hearing, then the court can order the accused to pay the amount of that bond.