by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
WV Legislature Considers Disciplinary Oversight of Law Enforcement Officers

Huntington Council's Public Safety Chair Would Support if Fair and Tweaked

CHARLESTON, WV (HNN) – Nine House of Delegates members, including Kelli Sobonya (R- Cabell) have brought forth proposed legislation that would require the reporting of so-called ‘problem’ officers to the State of West Virginia.

The proposal likely faces an uphill battle as law enforcement agencies will argue that their internal affairs process protects the public from officers who do not follow the law. The joint committee on the judiciary recommended the bill for passage.

For instance, as reported in the Charleston Gazette, State Police Maj. Gordon Ingold spoke against the bill. Sgt. Ingold complained that internal affairs keeps tracks of infractions and that the bill “usurps the department’s legislative rules for internal investigations.

"This duplicates what we already do. It is not necessary for our agency," he said. "The rules would hamper the ability we have in place to do our investigations. ... Some other departments don't have the in-depth investigative process we have.”

As introduced, responsibilities of the legislature’s law- enforcement training subcommittee would be altered. The subcommittee would be renamed the law- enforcement professional standards subcommittee. It would have the authority to de-certify law enforcement officers who commit serious infractions.


Quoting from one portion of the house bill, it would:


“Establish standards and procedures for the reporting of complaints and certain disciplinary matters concerning law- enforcement officers, and for reviewing the certification of law- enforcement officers who receive complaints or disciplinary matters. These standards and procedures shall provide for preservation of records and access to records by law-enforcement agencies and conditions as to how the information in those records is to be used regarding an officer's law-enforcement employment by another law enforcement agency…”

Huntington has contemplated a separate committee to review law enforcement complaints against members of the Huntington Police Department. The Public Safety Committee of Huntington City Council chaired by Frances Jackson had echoed citizen concerns that internal affairs is like a fox guarding the hen house.

Jackson recalled discussion of a council committee investigating a complaint then turning results over to the Mayor. The committee was not created as law enforcement complained that its responsibilities would be duplicative of internal affairs. In addition, the makeup of the committee and possible subpoena power and access to personnel matters complicated the proposal.

Responding to a brief summary of the proposed legislation, Jackson told HNN Saturday evening, “If the officers aren’t doing anything wrong, they do not have to worry.” Still, she tempered her support with a significant requirement: “As long as it’s fair to both sides.”

Her concerns centered on fairness and on the power of the subcommittee which would “have the power to take away an officer’s certification.” She asked, “Would there be an appeals process? Officers should have at least one appeal to present additional evidence.”

On the other hand, “most people feel they have no recourse with the peer review process because the police are always believed. I ve heard of times where officers were wrong and they got out of it. you don’t always hear the whole story,” Jackson said.

Just as the internal affairs has officers judging peers, she worries the state subcommittee could contain members who have “something against law enforcement officers.” Still, she stressed, there are guys who “think a gun and a badge gives them all kinds of power.” She called them “cowboys.”

Despite critical remarks pertaining to a few officers, Jackson does not want her opinion misinterpreted --- she’s not lumping all law enforcement officers into this category.

“ I realize when they get out of that car, they have to assess how to act, whether to immediately take command. They do not know what they are walking in to. I’ve witnessed times when they have been rude, but I’ve seen many more times when they have been professional and courteous.”

A copy of the bill, as introduced, can be found at:

http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Bill_Status/bills_text.cfm?billdoc=hb2538%20intr.htm&yr=2011&sesstype=RS&i=2538