SUNSHINE WEEK: THE PUBLIC'S RIGHT TO KNOW - Police Misconduct Could Become Public After Supreme Court Decision

(03/24/2014)

By Bob Weaver

Nationally, it has been is Sunshine Week for public information.

Over 35 years ago West Virginia lawmakers passed the Freedom of Information Act, a guarantee to citizens to gain access to government records.

The law says all West Virginia citizens are "entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees."

Since that time, the West Virginia Legislature has made exemptions for the "sunshine," while many state and county agencies have ignored and violated the law.

Some years ago, the Associated Press visited the state's 55 counties, testing the compliance of county commissions, county clerks, sheriff's departments and school superintendents with Freedom of Information requests.

Many counties and agencies failed miserably to comply with the law, according to the report, Lewis County was the only county that got an "A" and Braxton County fared the worst in the state.

WVU law professor Pat McKinley said "I think it is a very sad commentary on government's responsibility to a very basic right. It should be 100% compliance."

Calhoun County officials fared rather well with the FOIA requests, but the WV State Police was given an "F" statewide.

The Hur Herald, since going on-line in 1999, has experienced numerous problems with obtaining public information from many government agencies.

The biggest problem has been with the West Virginia State Police. They contend that much of the information should not be available, using exclusionary clauses in the FOIA act.

After denying the FOIA request, the State Police politely advise if you are not happy with the denial, you can pursue the matter in court, obtaining "injunctive relief."

A recent WV Supreme Court decision could bring more sunshine from the State Police.

In Calhoun County, administrators have told the local detachment not to release public information locally, only through the agencies media representative in Charleston, a decision likely made because of the Hur Herald's reporting on police problems in the past.

However, most troopers are willing to provide public information, if allowed.

SUNSHINE ON POLICE MISCONDUCT - Charleston Gazette

Reports of police brutality, sexual coercion and other abuses surface repeatedly.

For troopers, complaints like these should be examined by the State Police Professional Standards section. And West Virginians, who pay all costs of the force, deserve to know the findings of internal investigations.

After all, police act on behalf of the public, so citizens are entitled to learn what their paid officers are doing.

As we've said before, police work is dangerous. Dealing with drunken or drugged belligerents and armed criminals is risky, requiring exceptional officers who can stay calm under stress and behave with integrity.

Unfortunately, the record clearly shows that some officers fail this test. Lawsuits repeatedly prove that certain officers brutalized or sexually exploited defenseless victims - and West Virginia taxpayers are forced to shell out millions in court settlements.

Last year, Parkersburg taxpayers had to give $135,000 to a man because three patrolmen slammed his head into a patrol car hood repeatedly during an intoxication arrest.

Previously, Trooper Gary Messenger II went to prison for beating a Welch man, and the victim collected $1 million.

Charleston lawyer Roger Wolfe received a $200,000 settlement because troopers beat him savagely. A state report said 13 troopers were fired for misconduct in 2009 and 19 others resigned to avoid discipline.

In the past, the State Police concealed internal investigations.

But the Gazette sued in 2010, and the state Supreme Court ruled last fall that outcomes of serious inquiries must be revealed to the people.

Justice Margaret Workman wrote: "The public has a right to access the complaint, all documents in the case file, and the disposition."

Currently, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey is evaluating 1,200 files to decide how many fit criteria for disclosure.

The inquiry process is slow, and news of police brutality and abuses is hard on the morale of law-abiding officers.

But sunshine is a powerful disinfectant.

Police chiefs and departments that confront and correct problems earn the respect of the public they patrol. One of the steps in this continual process is disclosure ...

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