Police officers have dangerous jobs. When they stop a car or search a house, they never know whether a drug-crazed person will open fire at close range. The tragedy of two state troopers killed in their squad car beside I-79 in Clay County last year provides grim evidence.
Dealing with violent drunks, stoned pillheads, raging ex-husbands and the like creates emotional tension. It takes a rare personality for an officer to remain calm and professional during such confrontations.
Unfortunately, some officers fail the test. An endless string of lawsuits accuse West Virginia police of severe beatings and other misconduct that cost taxpayers millions in settlements. While wearing guns and possessing legal authority to kill, a few officers lose control.
For example, Trooper Gary Messenger II was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for the savage beating of a Welch man, who was awarded $1 million by taxpayers.
For example, South Charleston troopers beat lawyer Roger Wolfe so badly that spinal fluid came out his nose, and $200,000 damages were paid to the victim.
For example, four recent lawsuits accused troopers in Logan County of an ugly string of brutal attacks. One report said taxpayers shelled out $91,000 for state lawyers defending against the allegations.
For example, a State Police report said 13 troopers were fired for misconduct in 2009, and 19 others resigned to avoid discipline. Of 226 accusations against troopers that year, roughly half were sustained by department examiners.
Back in 1990, a teenage Lincoln County boy complained that a trooper beat him with fists and clubbed him with a heavy flashlight. This case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 1995 that all State Police complaints must be examined impartially by a neutral party. As a result, the department created a Central Log of Complaints -- but it has remained concealed in secrecy.
In a democracy, the public is entitled to know what government agencies do and how taxpayer money is spent. The Charleston Gazette has fought numerous court battles that forced public actions -- such as ethics rulings against lawyers and doctors, or restaurant inspection scores, or the outcome of lawsuits alleging misconduct by government officials -- to be revealed to the people.
When State Police refused to disclose matters in the Central Log of Complaints, the Gazette sued to bring this public information into the sunshine. Police leaders said such a disclosure would violate the privacy of troopers -- even if each trooper's name was blacked out.
Now this suit is before the state Supreme Court. The newspaper's attorney argued that revealing complaints against troopers is no different than revealing complaints against lawyers and doctors -- two examples in which the court previously ordered disclosure.We hope the five high court justices will let West Virginians know this vital information about their armed officers.