This is the final installment in a three-part series examining the lack of police oversight in West Virginia.
MONTGOMERY, W.Va. -- Montgomery City Councilman Terrance Hamm won't point to a single incident as the reason he helped start a civilian review board to oversee the city's police department.
"It's an issue of confidence in general," he said. "It's about checks and balances, like we have in any other part of government."
Hamm is one of a growing number of West Virginians looking to police oversight as a way to instill confidence in the state's law enforcement officers.
The 2007 beating of Twan Reynolds and false arrest of his wife, Lauren, was a factor in the board's creation, Hamm said, as he stood outside the Montgomery City Building. Some of what Leavitt did -- licking Lauren Reynolds' neck and jabbing a pepper spray-covered finger in Twan Reynolds' eye -- happened there.
Leavitt was eventually sent to prison on two federal civil rights violations.
But there were other incidents in the past and the review board is about more than just Leavitt, Hamm said.
Officials from other towns have contacted him, wanting to find out whether something similar might be a good idea for their town, he said.
"The idea is spreading," he said.
The Legislature will take up a bill in the 2011 session by Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, that would expand the duties of the state body that decides when police officers lose their certification.
Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he's been supportive of such legislation.
"I think the process to track and identify those who are not adequately trained or who are behaving in such a fashion needs to be strengthened," he said. "We have to have public confidence in law enforcement."
Decertifying committee is limited
Current state law gives the Law Enforcement Training Subcommittee of the Governor's Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Corrections the ability to decertify officers -- but not the power to subpoena or investigate, said State Police Sgt. Curtis Tilley, head of the LET subcommittee and an instructor at the State Police Academy.
Tilley said because of this, the committee looks only at cases where an officer has been convicted of a jailable offense.
Even in cases such as that of Galen Reel -- the former Moorefield police officer who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Mary Ann Groves while on duty, then later said that plea was a lie and was found not guilty of the charges -- the committee's hands are tied, Tilley said.
"We deal with an incident when we know something did happen," he said.
Groves' attorney, Arron Harrah, provided the subcommittee with extensive documents from his case, including the deposition of a female police officer who alleged a similar unwanted sexual experience with Groves.
But in the end, he had been acquitted of the charges, Tilley said.
"What it still boiled down to was the primary accusation and on that primary accusation, there was a jury acquittal," he said. "And that was something the committee had to take into consideration and that was the advice of the assistant attorney general."
But the standard of proof in a criminal trial is not the standard that should be applied to a professional licensure, whether it's that of a doctor, lawyer or police officer, Laird said.
"The authority to certify comes with the responsibility to decertify based on well-defined criteria," he said. "That criteria should be more clearly defined."
Laird's proposed legislation, which the Legislature's interim joint committee on the judiciary supported in early December, does just that.
It creates a statewide database where law enforcement agencies would be required to report complaints, disciplinary matters, investigations and other actions taken by an officer.
Agencies would be required to check the database before hiring. The law would also compel the committee to establish standards and procedures for the reporting of complaints and allow the committee to issue subpoenas so they have better information about the incidents brought to them.
"I don't necessarily subscribe to the fact that final conviction of an offense is the only criteria that should ultimately result in the decertification of a police officer," said Laird, the former Fayette County Sheriff.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a statement to the Gazette that although the legislation may have laudable goals, he would want to make sure that any new authority given to the subcommittee wouldn't thwart the ability of state agencies to manage their internal affairs.
"We must also carefully consider whether the power given to the subcommittee would limit the discretion needed within each particular law-enforcement agency to develop policies and procedures consistent with the mission of the agency," he said.
"Finally, it is certainly important that the administration of programs for qualification, training, and certification of law enforcement officers be handled properly. However, it is also important to make sure that the subcommittee is not set up in such a manner that it would simply duplicate investigations that are already properly taking place within a particular law enforcement agency."
Making it work
For the Montgomery review board to work, Hamm said, the community has to be involved. They're setting up places in the town to allow complaints to be dropped off anonymously, so people don't have to make complaints at the police station, he said.