Report: West Virginia law enforcement agencies are criminally irresponsible

Law enforcement agencies in West Virginia are failing to keep accurate records of misconduct and violence, while available data indicate grim realities of injustice and irresponsibility, a report released by the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter reveals.

“West Virginians have a right to know how often authorities resort to violence against the communities they police. They have a right to know why law enforcement resort to violence. And they have a right to know what consequences authorities will face if they do not follow procedures,” the 2020 Police Misconduct Report states. “Unfortunately, much of that remains unknown for now. Law enforcement works best when it communicates clearly with the community. Unfortunately, West Virginia can still do much better.”

Of the state’s 275 law enforcement agencies, just 55% responded to public record requests from the ACLU-WV, the other 45% acting in violation of state law. Additionally, only 21 of the state’s 55 county sheriff’s departments responded to such requests.

Among other notable conclusions, the report states that, “It is safe to assume at least 1,000 people are subjected to some form of physical violence by police every year.”

This estimation was calculated based on available data, which, again, is limited due to the failure of law enforcement agencies to respond to open records requests. According to available data, roughly 200 complaints are filed against law enforcement agencies each year. The calculation amounts to roughly one such incident each year per every four officers in the state.

“[This] means at least 200 West Virginians every year feel an officer violated their rights or otherwise acted inappropriately,” the report states. “Based on interviews, it is likely the actual number is significantly higher.”

Of the agencies that responded to open records requests, just 92 provided information relating to use of force incidents. Using the data from these 92 agencies, the ACLU-WV concludes that use of force incidents across the state have steadily increased over the past five years.

There were 665 use of force incidents reported in 2015; 738 in 2016; 723 in 2017; 899 in 2018; and 966 in 2019. The largest plurality of such incidents can be attributed to the West Virginia State Police.

 “However, over the years studied, there was a consistent decline in State Police use of force incidents (221 in 2015 down to 145 in 2019) and a corresponding rise in use of force incidents for all other agencies,” the report explains. “While the total number of use of force incidents rose each year, there was no clear trend within individual agencies.”

The report concludes that the Beckley Police Department and the Charleston Police Department have contributed most to the overall increase in use of force incidents over the 5-year span. In Beckley, there were 109 such incidents in 2015 and 147 in 2019; In Charleston, there were 156 in 2015 and 196 in 2019.

Data for reports of law enforcement misconduct across the state appear more nuanced, with only 91 agencies providing relevant records.

According to available data, there were 204 formal complaints of misconduct in 2015; 175 in 2016; 198 in 2017; 134 in 2018; and 152 in 2019. State Police misconduct also accounts for the most significant portion of such incidents.

“The State Police had more complaints of misconduct than all other responding agencies combined in 2015 and 2016,” the report states.

The report includes a metric meant to measure whether complaints typically can be attributed to certain problematic officers, concluding that, in general, identified issues are more systemic rather than the result of a few individuals.

Available data show that 90 officers were implicated in complaints in 2016; 93 in 2016; 130 in 2017; 90 in 2018; and 175 in 2019.

“In other words, the data generally demonstrate that single officers were not repeatedly named in complaints.,” the report states. “However, there were notable exceptions, such as, in 2019, the Morgan County Sheriff Office reported eight complaints against one officer.”

Data also indicate a troubling level of unresponsiveness from law enforcement agencies faced with complaints about use of force and misconduct.

Just 47% of complaints against officers in the studied period resulted in a formal review process, with most conducted reviews having been initiated by civilians rather than internally.

From 2015-2019, law enforcement agencies reported having conducted about 1,350 internal reviews, more than 700 of which resulted from civilian complaints.

While law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to conduct internal reviews over instances of misconduct and use of force, data indicate they also have been significantly less likely to discipline officers accused of wrongdoing.

“The data show there were 16 times as many use of force incidents as disciplinary actions,” the report states.

According to available data, law enforcement agencies reported 243 disciplinary actions against officers over the five-year period. The report states that counseling was the most likely form of punishment against an accused officer, and more severe repercussions such as reassignments and demotions were least likely.

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].