West Virginia legislators look at police accountability
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State lawmakers are starting to look into issues of police accountability, with an eye on the upcoming legislative session.
Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a former four-term sheriff in Fayette County, believes it's time to make some changes to laws regarding police certification.
"I'm looking at potential legislation," he said. "One remedy would be the creation of some type of centralized database, used to collect allegations of misconduct from law enforcement."
Laird said he believes the Law Enforcement Training Subcommittee of the Governor's Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Corrections could serve as a repository for that information.
"I hasten to add, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are truly dedicated professionals who do their duty and perform in a conscientious manner," he said. "But it's also important to discern patterns of misconduct. And the only way to do that would be to create a certain type of database used to track discipline."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he didn't have a problem adding staff and duties to the LET subcommittee to make sure it can adequately deal with problem officers.
"It appears to be something we genuinely need to do," Kessler said, adding that most officers are good officers. "We absolutely need to make sure people have trust in law enforcement. You're supposed to call police to help you, not to hurt you. That's basic. And if someone falls through the cracks ... they need to be removed from the field and I don't think any officer thinks to the contrary."
Laird said he believes there would have to be a mandatory reporting requirement for police departments that would be triggered based upon acts of misconduct.
"There are some fairly longstanding examples of state regulation and oversight with respect to conduct and behavior," he said. "And I think there are examples in other states to look at. I haven't got to that point in the research."
'The Earth hasn't fallen in'
Police need to be held accountable by an agency outside the bounds of law enforcement, said Gareth Jones, director of the Special Ombudsman Response Team in Ontario, Canada.
The agency has exclusive jurisdiction in the province over any investigation into a death or serious injury involving a police officer, he said. It started around 1990 after a series of questionable shootings by police officers.
"Previously, if the cops were doing [the investigations], everyone would scream whitewash. Now the process has credibility," Jones said.
"We were as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool, originally. The police were suspicious, they were hostile. Nobody likes oversight. ... Gradually what's happened is, the Earth hasn't fallen in and it's been done reasonably and fairly and the public has confidence in it."
A former sergeant in London's metropolitan police force, Jones believes he has investigated more shootings involving police officers than anyone else in the world - more than 100.
Jones' agency has a budget of $5.5 million and deals with about 250 incidents a year, he said. That's for a province with a population of 14 million.
"Sure you have to put the money out up front, but you save millions," Jones said. "We have very few lawsuits now, compared to when this started in 1989, 1990."
The agency has an exoneration rate of 97 percent, he said.
"Originally, the government made the usual mistake of under-budgeting it," he said. "Now, we have 12 full-time investigators plus 30 part-time. ... It saves you money. And, don't make it a home for retired cops. That brings its own problems. You've got to bring in civilians that have investigative experience."
Civilian review boards are commonplace in the United States.
Of the 20 largest American cities, only three do not have some type of civilian review of police. And in one of them - Jacksonville, Fla. - community leaders are pushing to have one put in place, according to the Florida Times-Union.
There is a range of civilian oversight models that fit into two overlapping groups, according to Philip Eure, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and head of Washington, D.C.'s, Office of Complaints.
The first are investigator models that have a separate staff with civilian investigators, often lawyers, who look into complaints of police misconduct.
The second type are auditor or monitor models, which don't do their own investigation but review investigations done by police and issue reports based on those reviews. These models are cheaper to run, Eure said.
"They don't have the resources to redo every case. They pick and choose cases," he said. "They've been in vogue the last several years."
There are many hybrids of those models, he said.
The Iowa Office of Citizen's Aide/Ombudsman serves in a similar capacity to an oversight board statewide, said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Omaha and an expert on police accountability.
The office has jurisdiction over not just police, but nearly all government offices in state and local government, said William P. Angrick II, ombudsman for Iowa.
"When we get a complaint about local law enforcement ... we will ask the complainant to utilize the established or expected local internal mechanism, first. We will ask the complainant to talk to internal affairs, to raise it there first."
The office gets about 4,500 complaints annually from various departments, not just law enforcement, Angrick said.
'Nothing worse than a bad cop'
When the FBI hears about a potential civil rights violation by a police officer, the charge is taken very seriously, said Jay Bartholomew, supervisory special agent with the FBI in Charleston.
In addition to the Matthew Leavitt case, which sent the former Montgomery officer to jail, Bartholomew's office has been involved in another high-profile investigation into police misconduct in the past year.
On Dec. 2, former Dunbar Police officer Raymond O. Conley pleaded guilty in federal court to a misdemeanor civil rights violation for coercing a woman into having sex with him while he was on duty in exchange for dropping an illegally obtained drug charge against her.
But although such cases are a high priority, the FBI only has so many hours to devote to them, Bartholomew said.
"We are limited. We do have limited resources and there are still other high priority matters to address. We have no terrorism leads going unaddressed. Every one gets handled," Bartholomew said. "There are high priorities that compete for resources, like public corruption."
At the end of the day, the FBI is not a review agency, Bartholomew said.
"The majority of police officers are good guys," he said. "There's the presumption of innocence on anybody accused of a crime, and I think most juries give officers the benefit of the doubt, so you have to have some pretty solid evidence."
Investigations into police officers' actions in West Virginia are usually done internally or by the State Police. Bluefield is the only city in the state with any type of civilian review board.
In September 1998, Robert Ellison, a 20-year-old black man, was beaten and dragged by two white Bluefield police officers outside a nightclub, leaving him paralyzed below the neck, according to the report by the West Virginia Advisory Committee, "Coping with Police Misconduct."
Ellison settled a suit against the city in June 2000. The city agreed to pay him $1 million, increase its efforts to hire more minority police and establish a civilian panel to review police misconduct investigations.
"There's nothing worse than a bad cop," Bartholomew said. "Most of the chiefs of police out there want to get rid of a bad cop, they are more than willing to work with us. ... That goes for most cops. Ninety-nine percent are good guys. It's the 1 percent that aren't that tarnishes the badge. No self-respecting cop wants to pick up the newspaper and read about bad cops. That hurts us all."
'Less than 1 percent'
Of the approximately 3,500 police officers that work in West Virginia, very few run afoul of the rules.
"You're talking about a very small number, less than 1 percent. I think I would want the public to keep that in mind," said West Virginia State Police Sgt. Curtis Tilley, chairman of the LET and assistant director of training at the State Police training academy.
"Although these things make headlines, and make headlines understandably because police are in such a position of public trust, if you look at the number, it's still small, less than 1 percent. Ninety-nine percent are doing what they should be doing and that's what we hope the public remembers."
Adding police oversight will cut down on police lawsuits, said Roger Goldman, professor at the St. Louis University School of Law and an expert on police certification.
"Look at it from the perspective of big-time lawsuits - let's nip it in the bud a lot sooner and save taxpayers' money," he said. "The cost of one more lawsuit isn't worth the investment in a person's salary? Come on."
Jones, the ombudsman in Canada, said it's important that there be a division between police and whoever is overseeing them to keep the integrity of the process.
There are also special interest groups that want to be involved in police oversight, wanting to prosecute police for doing their jobs, he said. Both police and the special interest groups need to be kept out of the oversight process, he said.
"It all comes down to the integrity of the investigative process, that it's done thoroughly and objectively," Jones said. "In the end who gives a damn what the police think, what special interests think? It's what the public thinks that matters."
Reach Gary Harki at email@example.com or 304-348-5163.