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Supreme Court to hear arguments on internal police records

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Tuesday the West Virginia Supreme Court will begin to decide whether the State Police is required to release records detailing how it handles allegations of abuse and misconduct by officers.

State Police do not say what happens to officers who are investigated for complaints of misconduct and have sought to keep those details a secret, arguing release would be an invasion of officers' privacy.

In 2010 The Charleston Gazette sued the State Police, asking for reports from their Professional Standards section, which handles internal investigations. The lawsuit was filed after requests for public information from State Police and the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety were repeatedly denied.

In May 2012, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey sided with State Police in keeping that public information hidden, saying, "The public interest does not require disclosure."

The Gazette appealed Bailey's order to the state Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on Tuesday.

Any decision that the Supreme Court makes in the case would set precedent for how the public learns about police misconduct investigations in the future.

Sean McGinley, with the Charleston law firm DiTrapano, Barrett and DiPiero, is representing the Gazette.

McGinley argues that police work is public information and not subject to exemption under privacy laws.

"Nearly all other courts have found police officers have no privacy interest in similar records, and the lower court's holding if affirmed, would make West Virginia a lone voice for un-accountability and lack of transparency," he wrote in the appeal.

Investigations of alleged police misconduct and their outcomes are done entirely in secret and there is no public accountability whatsoever, McGinley said.

He noted that previous Gazette cases have led to the release of details about internal investigations of attorneys and medical doctors in West Virginia.

An outline of the State Police's Professional Standards section revealed that there are more than 1,200 entries in its central log of complaints, he said.

The log keeps track of personal information, the subject of a complaint and disciplinary action taken.

The State Police's attorneys wrote a response to the appeal and said that these documents have never been subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

"These reports are an invasion of privacy and could be used to harm or embarrass an officer with complaints, no matter how egregious or unfounded," the State Police argued.

Even with names of officers redacted, the information requested could be manipulated to determine which employees are the subject of complaints, they argued.

McGinley said that the release of these records serves a "heightened public interest because they concern a state agency's investigation of its own employees for complaints of alleged misconduct while in a position of authority."

Since 2006, State Police troopers have been accused of police brutality at least seven times and sexual assault at least twice. None of the allegations have resulted in charges against a trooper.

"The State Police decided that it, and it alone, will decide what is, and what is not, in the public interest, and refused even to discuss its rationale in coming to that self-serving conclusion," McGinley wrote.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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