CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge this week granted an attorney access to the city of Bluefield's civilian review panel created to review police misconduct.
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 minority police officers and establish a civilian review panel to review police misconduct investigations.
Last September, Charleston lawyer Ed Hill mailed a state Freedom of Information Act and federal Freedom of Information laws request to then-Bluefield Mayor Linda Whelen, asking what the panel had accomplished since its inception.
Hill was representing Ellison's family; Ellison died in 2002. He said he had reason to believe the city hadn't followed through the terms of the settlement.
Bluefield city attorney Brian Cochran asked Senior U.S. District 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.
On Monday, Faber ruled Hill could inspect documents related to the review panel, but the information should be kept confidential.
"The parties were directed to tender an Agreed Protective Order to the court for entry, which would serve to protect the confidential nature of the materials sought," Faber said in his order.
"This satisfies the city's need for confidentiality," Hill said. "If the documents reveal significant, serious noncompliance by the city, I have the opportunity to take that up with the judge.
"We raised the issue that there is a need for periodic accountability by the city, and [Faber] seemed concerned that his orders were carried out and concerned that based on my pleading that I had reason to think the city was not in compliance. He seemed to take that seriously," Hill said.
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 kate.wh...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.