CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After several problems with city police, Montgomery's mayor and City Council members have created a police oversight commission to act as a liaison between the public and the city's police department.
Anyone with a complaint against the department, which has four full-time and about five part-time officers, will be able to bring that complaint to the commission, said Mayor Jim Higgins.
"My hope is that it bridges the gap between the police department and the community," said Councilman Terrance Hamm, who is the only city official on the five-member oversight panel.
"If they feel they are not getting the protection that they need, they have another avenue to take," Hamm said. "There have been a number of incidents in the city and I really felt like the people in the community needed a way to have a little bit more of a voice."
City Attorney Brian Parsons said citizen oversight of police departments is an idea that is gaining momentum in West Virginia.
"I was reading the Gazette editorial [urging independent civilian review boards] this past Sunday, it's obviously an idea that is being kicked around in other places," said Parsons, who also is city attorney for Oak Hill, Ansted and Gauley Bridge and a Fayette County assistant prosecutor.
At least 120 cities and towns have civilian review boards across the country, but Montgomery becomes only the second West Virginia city to have any outside review of police.
Bluefield agreed to set up a review board as a part of a settlement with Robert Ellison, who was left paralyzed below the neck in 1998 after two Bluefield police officers beat and dragged him outside a nightclub. Ellison settled a lawsuit against the city for $1 million in 2000.
Montgomery Police Chief Jack Brown said he thinks the new commission will help foster a relationship between the community and the police department.
"It gives us another set of eyes and ears on what goes on," Brown said. "From my experience, police work is no different than any other kind of work. You have people who have done it for years and years and they are very reluctant to give up any perceived control to anyone outside of police."
He said officers worry that regular citizens won't understand the particular problems and dangers that are part of police work.
"But I think you can get people from outside and, when they find out what goes on and how things happen, you can make it work," he said. "They've done it in bigger cities, Los Angeles, New York, and we are going to follow their lead. I look forward to making this a model program we can all be proud of."
Parsons said he's also discussed the idea of setting up a police oversight commission with the city manager in Oak Hill.
"They have a much more developed civil-service system there. They have police commissioners. I'm not sure if it's analogous," he said, "but I do see Montgomery as a test pilot."
Montgomery has had a history of problems with its police department.
In September 2008, then-Montgomery officers Matthew Leavitt and Shawn Hutchinson assaulted Twan and Lauren Reynolds outside the city's 7-Eleven.
Leavitt hit Twan Reynolds over the head with a blackjack, kicked him in the back and sprayed his eyes with pepper spray at close range. He also used a racial epithet and licked Lauren Reynolds on the neck during an interrogation. Their 4-year-old daughter witnessed much of the assault.
Leavitt is serving a two-year prison sentence for federal civil rights violations. The Reynolds family settled a lawsuit with the city for $500,000.
Leavitt allegedly had run-ins with other residents. In September 2007, he and Hutchinson allegedly assaulted Roderick and Lakisha White after responding to an incident at their home.