Manchin reversed State Police directive on cruiser security screens in 2006
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The shooting deaths of two state troopers in Clay County last month has prompted talks about whether police cruisers should have protective screens to separate officers from suspects in custody.
But what's not being discussed -- at least not publicly -- is this: The West Virginia State Police ordered 550 security screens in 2006, but never used the bulk of them, according to records and interviews.
State Police started installing the barriers in cruisers in late May that year, but abruptly stopped after former Gov. Joe Manchin ordered then-Superintendent Dave Lemmon to reverse a previous directive to put in the security screens, Lemmon confirmed this week.
"My goal was to put them in all patrol cars," Lemmon said in a telephone interview. "[Manchin] wanted them to be optional. I didn't agree, but he was the governor."
Manchin, now a U.S. Senator, said Tuesday he had a good reason for allowing troopers to decide whether to use protective screens, which were not bulletproof.
"When it came to the barriers, I heard far more complaints than positive comments," Manchin said in a prepared statement. "Troopers told me they obstructed their vision and ability to operate in the car, and that they didn't provide sufficient additional safety benefits."
Before Manchin intervened, Lemmon had authorized the purchase of the 4-gauge, vinyl-coated wire screens and issued a notice to install them. "It was a blanket order," Lemmon recalled.
But weeks later, after some troopers complained, Manchin called Lemmon and directed the superintendent to make the protective screens optional.
"He made the decision on it," Lemmon said. "I tried to talk him out of it. But he was the governor, and that was his way of doing things."
Most state troopers subsequently elected not to have the barriers put in their vehicles. Officers had complained that the screens impeded their view while backing up their cruisers. Others said the protective screens didn't allow the front seat to slide back far enough, limiting leg room.
"We had some complaints filtering up," Lemmon said.
Two state troopers died last month after an Oak Hill man, who sat in their cruiser's back seat, shot them in the back of the head. The patrol car did not have a security screen.
The security barriers purchased by State Police in 2006 likely wouldn't have stopped the bullets that killed the officers. The screens weren't made of bulletproof material. The barriers also had 2-inch gaps between the wires, enough space to stick a gun through and fire a bullet.
In bid documents, State Police also requested clear, plastic shields that would cover at least two-thirds of the protective wire screens. But it's unclear whether the state purchased the polycarbonate "hocker stopper" shields.
In his statement, Manchin said he made it a priority to ensure troopers "had the best equipment, the best training, the best of everything ... so they could protect themselves and the public."
"Working with the State Police, my administration made the barriers optional for troopers, based on personal preference and experience -- just like bulletproof vests," he said.
Lemmon said he issued the directive to install the protective screens after an incident in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle in which a man in custody jumped over the front seat of a cruiser while officers were outside the vehicle. The man stole the cruiser, leading police on a high-speed chase.
Manchin appointed Lemmon as State Police superintendent in 2005. Lemmon left his post in December 2008.
"One of my real concerns was officer safety," said Lemmon, who's now retired. "In today's time, I can't figure out why they wouldn't want those screens. I still think they're a good thing to have in patrol cars."
State Police said they weren't sure how many of the 550 security screens were installed, but they acknowledged that few cruisers now have cages. They also didn't have any records immediately available that would show the whereabouts of unused screens.
Lemmon said he wasn't sure whether the screens purchased in 2006 would fit in newer cruisers.
The State Police paid $79,600 for the screens -- or $145 each. Adamson Industry Corp., a Lowell, Mass.-based company was the low bidder and sold the security barriers to the state.
Former State Police Superintendent Tim Pack said Tuesday that he left the protective screens optional after he replaced Lemmon in January 2009.
Pack said the wire cages were a "double-edged sword" that provided some safety benefits, but also had several disadvantages. Pack said the protective screens made it difficult to get prisoners in and out of cruisers. Officers also could not videotape confessions or easily take statements with the cages, he said.
"Those cruisers, for a lot of officers, are their office," said Pack, who called the Gazette Tuesday at the request of a Manchin aide.
Pack said the decision whether to install the barriers should be left with troopers -- not mandated from the top down.
"Those are difficult decisions," he said. "Who better to make those decisions than the people whose lives are on the line?"
On Aug. 28, Cpl. Marshall Lee Bailey and Trooper Eric Michael Workman, both of the Clay County detachment, were shot after arresting Luke Silas Baber, during what they though was a routine traffic stop near the Wallback exit of Interstate 79.
Baber, who also wounded a tow truck driver and a Clay County sheriff's deputy before being killed, was handcuffed with his hands in front of him, and put in the back seat of a State Police cruiser, authorities said.
Baber retrieved a gun he had hidden in his pants, and shot both troopers in the back of the head from the cruiser's back seat. The troopers had patted Baber down, but apparently missed the handgun, State Police said.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.