CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's troubling that people do not know what happens to police officers who are investigated for allegations of abuse and misconduct, state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman said Tuesday.
An attorney for The Charleston Gazette argued that the public interest outweighs any privacy claims State Police are making in keeping hidden information about their investigations of their own officers. But releasing that information would be an invasion of privacy under the Freedom of Information Act, a State Police attorney argued.
"It's troubling that policemen, who I respect tremendously and most of us do, have been imposed an incredible amount of authority to enforce the law through force," Workman said, "And if the public doesn't have a right to know anything about any of these complaints, then that seems like it's not in the spirit of FOIA."
State Supreme Court justices heard arguments in a lawsuit appeal on Tuesday.
A lawsuit filed in 2010 for the Gazette by lawyer Sean McGinley and the firm DiTrapano, Barrett and DiPiero had asked for reports produced by the department's Professional Standards section, which handles internal investigations. In May 2012, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey sided with State Police in keeping that information hidden, saying, "The public interest does not require disclosure."
McGinley said Tuesday that State Police could not pinpoint what privacy claims they make in not releasing information from the agency's Central Log of Complaints.
"Exemptions should be liberally construed in favor of disclosure," he said.
State Police attorney Virginia Lanham said the Central Log of Complaints is a "very fluid document" that changes throughout the investigation process.
It contains information about officers who have been flagged for frequent misconduct allegations or have more than three use-of-force incidents. There are more than 1,200 entries in the agency's central log of complaints, she said. Those files contain information about an officer's health records and what stressors they may face on and off duty.
McGinley said the Gazette's original request said names could be redacted to bypass the privacy exemption. But the State Police, he said, decided that the entire log fell under a right to privacy. The agency alone is deciding what information benefits the public, he argued.
McGinley said previous Gazette lawsuits have required the release of misconduct allegations against doctors and lawyers.