This is the first installment in a three-part series examining the lack of police oversight in West Virginia.
CEDAR GROVE, W.Va. -- When West Virginia police officers get into trouble and are fired or quit their jobs, they often jump to other departments -- the same handful of departments, a Gazette-Mail investigation shows.
The state doesn't monitor why officers switch departments, but the Division of Criminal Justice Services keeps track of their employment histories. An examination of the data -- about 14 years' worth -- shows that 166 officers have held jobs with more than four departments in West Virginia.
Officers moving from department to department after their actions are questioned - but before anything can be proven -- is a common occurrence not just in West Virginia, but across the nation, said Sam Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Omaha, and a police accountability expert.
"Everybody talks about the problem of gypsy cops -- officers who are employed, get in trouble, quit, then get hired somewhere else," he said. "It has been talked about but it has never been researched. Part of it is that research in policing always focuses on big cities. Small departments go off the radar screen."
There are 14 departments that have each hired at least 10 of the 166 officers that moved around the most.
Smithers, Montgomery, Shinnston, Mount Hope and Cedar Grove combined have hired those officers at least 80 times.
In the past two years, the Sunday Gazette-Mail has shown that at least 13 West Virginia officers who have left one department under a cloud of allegations have found work at another department.
"We have news stories about a particular officer when misconduct results in a very serious problem," Walker said. "We don't really have a professional system to prevent these kinds of problems."
One of those news stories in West Virginia this year focused on Robert McComb, 81, of Cedar Grove.
McComb had his knees replaced in February, but that didn't slow him down.
Last spring, he fixed up his camp near Duck, in Braxton County, putting in a retaining wall against the riverbank that had him carrying and stacking 1,800 masonry blocks.
In August, McComb had a bad run-in with Johnny Walls, a police officer on his fourth department in seven years. The then-Cedar Grove chief stopped McComb as he drove his ATV to his house.
Witnesses said Walls grabbed McComb, pulled him off the side of the ATV and slammed him to the concrete, face-first.
Walls already had a history of problems. In 2006, William Pullen won a $36,000 settlement against the town of Chesapeake for Walls' actions as a police officer there.
Now, McComb can barely walk from the camp to his car.
"I couldn't deer hunt this year," he said. "I couldn't lift the rifle."
Police officers switch jobs for the same reasons anyone does -- better pay, relocation, better work environment, said Roger Goldman, professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law and an expert on police certification.
"Then you have your last-chance agencies -- every state's got them," he said.
Goldman said there are small departments all around the nation that will hire an officer with questionable conduct in his past because it's easier and cheaper.
"Typically, these agencies might have the option to hire someone else, but they usually have to get their certification and ... who pays for that?"
It costs about $1,500 for a department to send one officer to the required certification program at the West Virginia State Police Academy. With other expenses, the total cost is more than $5,000, police chiefs say. The money comes from the city, not the state.
If a city does pay for a new officer, those officers often leave for better paying jobs once certified, leaving the process to repeat itself, he said.
"It's economics," Goldman said.
Nationally, there's very little monitoring of officer movement, he said. There are 44 states that have a mechanism to decertify police, but the standards for doing so vary. About 20 set the standard at criminal convictions, he said.
"In Arizona, they can do it for ethical reasons," Goldman said.
In West Virginia, the Law Enforcement Training Subcommittee of the Governor's Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Corrections has the power to decertify officers. The committee is made up of law enforcement officers and officials from around the state. It has the power to decertify police "for conduct or a pattern of conduct unbecoming to an officer or activities that would tend to disrupt, diminish, or otherwise jeopardize public trust and fidelity in law enforcement," according to the West Virginia State Code.
In practice, though, the state only decertifies officers who have been convicted of a jailable offense, said West Virginia State Police Sgt. Curtis Tilley, who heads the LET subcommittee.
The LET subcommittee has a one-man staff and doesn't have subpoena power, which Tilley says is necessary to be able find information about what officers have done.