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Lawyer says Bluefield not keeping promises in settlement

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --An attorney said he believes the city of Bluefield hasn't followed through on its promise to establish a civilian review panel to review police misconduct investigations.

In September 1998, Robert Ellison, a 20-year-old black man, filed suit against the city alleging he was beaten and dragged by two white Bluefield police officers outside a nightclub. The incident left him paralyzed below the neck.

 The suit was settled in June 2000. The city, while maintaining its officers didn't break the law, agreed to pay Ellison $1 million, increase its efforts to hire more minority police officers and establish a civilian review panel to review police misconduct investigations.

Last September, Charleston attorney Ed Hill, who represented Ellison during the suit, mailed a state Freedom of Information Act and federal Freedom of Information laws request to then Bluefield Mayor Linda Whelen requesting information about what the panel has accomplished since its inception.

"Among other documents evidencing the work of this Citizen Review Panel, please provide all organizational records, identity of members of this Panel, minutes of meetings, and documentation of all action taken as a result of the work of this Panel," Hill's Sept. 10 letter stated.

On Sept. 14, Brian Cochran, an attorney for the city, replied to Hill, scheduling a date and time for him to inspect the documents.

But, on Sept. 20, Cochran filed a motion in U.S. District Court asking Judge David Faber, who presided over the 1999 case, to clarify the terms of the judgment, pointing out the settlement agreement stated all information obtained by the panel is confidential.

Cochran, who has served as Bluefield's attorney since 2008, said last week he filed the motion with the court "out of an abundance of caution."

"I don't have any problem turning [the documents] over if that's what the court decides to do," he said in a telephone interview.

Hill responded in writing to the court that, "Based on reliable information, [he] is of the belief that little has been accomplished in the past 12 years that would reflect a good faith effort on the part of The City of Bluefield to comply..."

A hearing on the matter will be held at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 19 in U.S. District Court in Bluefield in front of Judge Faber.

"Federal judges usually are concerned when their orders are ignored and I think it's important for Robbie Ellison -- he died," Hill told the Gazette.

Ellison died in 2002. Hill has stayed in contact with his family, who asked him what Bluefield has done since the incident.

"They're concerned," Hill said. "Had [the panel] done anything they were supposed to have done, some of that information would have been available. I think their thoughts are, assuming anything has been done, they don't want a police officer's criticisms to be publicly exposed."

But there aren't any provisions in place to keep the panel quiet about police investigations, unlike in medical malpractice cases, where peer review discussions are confidential, according to Hill.

Cochran said that while the city has most likely complied with the terms of the settlement, over the years and changes in administration, the panel probably became a bit lax. The Ellison settlement states the board is to meet four times a year.

"I think the city did have numerous meetings for many years and I think then they started probably having them based on complaints," Cochran said. "Different mayors come in, different city managers come in -- I don't know how many -- different police chiefs, a lot of new employees that have come in that weren't even aware of [the settlement]."

In 1998, Charleston Mayor Kemp Melton started an unofficial five-member civilian review board for the Charleston Police Department. Melton created the board as an advisory body in response to several allegations that city police were insensitive to racial issues.

In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city to get information on the number of misconduct cases and information regarding the civilian review board's membership and function. The city provided the list, but after a legal battle to release the information to the public, then-Mayor Jay Goldman and Charleston City Council dissolved the board in August of that year. Reach Kate White at 304-348-1723 or kate.white@wvgazette.com.


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