CHARLESTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has now opened its own probe into an altercation among West Virginia police and a 16-year-old, local authorities say.
“Now we have another involvement, where the FBI and the Department of Justice are getting involved,” Berkeley County Sheriff Curtis Keller said in a telephone interview.
Berkeley County Prosecutor Catie Wilkes Delligatti also confirmed the FBI investigation today.
“They have opened an investigation and we’ve agreed to coordinate with them,” Delligatti said.
She added, “In any case where there are allegations of improper actions by law enforcement, there can be federal investigations to determine whether any action is appropriate under federal law.”
The FBI itself has not confirmed its investigation into the Martinsburg incident.
“We don’t really have anything to say,” said FBI spokeswoman Catherine Policicchio. “We don’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”
A federal investigation may be an indication of concern over whether the 16-year-old’s constitutional rights were violated during the Nov. 19 incident.
The FBI is the lead federal agency for investigating the abuse of authority by public officials. The scope includes excessive force.
Whether the teen’s civil rights were violated has been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.
“Police have a constitutional responsibility to avoid excessive force, no matter the circumstance,” stated Loree Stark, the legal director for The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.
Two state troopers and one sheriff’s deputy have been suspended without pay pending three separate investigations of the altercation in Berkeley County.
They have been identified Trooper First Class Derek Walker and Trooper First Class Michael Kennedy as well as Deputy Austin Ennis.
The allegations were revealed last Thursday with a statement from Gov. Jim Justice, who alluded to the beating of a 16-year-old white male.
A later statement from the State Police stopped short of describing a beating, claiming “the response to resistance/aggression actions of the troopers came into question.”
Several local and state investigations have been active already.
Those included the West Virginia State Police, the Berkeley County Prosecutor, the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.
“I welcome the investigation by the FBI to lend yet another level of transparency to the investigations into this incident,” Delligatti said.
Delligatti said the investigation by her office is near completion.
“We are, I would say, we could be close to complete,” she said. “However, with the federal government being involved now, I can’t speak as to their timeline.”
Delligatti is cautious of prejudicing the FBI’s investigation by releasing the conclusions by her own office.
“I believe that remains to be seen depending on their timeline, so that we can appropriately coordinate whatever action is appropriate.”
Keller also described cooperation.
“They’re adding their investigation,” Keller said.
“The Department of Justice is coming on board. They’re doing their investigation and we’re continuing ours. We’re not stopping ours because they’re there.”
He agreed more time now could be required.
“We’re going to continue what we’re doing, but they’re going to be involved in it also,” Keller said. “It’s going to take a while before things are completely resolved on it.”
Statements have described the 16-year-old crashing into a parked sheriff’s cruiser, fleeing, losing control and crashing into a utility pole.
What happened next was captured on dashcam video from a sheriff’s cruiser and passed up the chain of command until the event was described to the governor.
Keller today said the first viewing of the video was a routine — and not initially urgent — matter because of the crash investigations.
A captain was assigned to investigate both the first crash into the department’s cruiser and then the second crash into the utility pole.
“We were not even aware of anything occurring that would make us look right away at anything,” Keller said.
“During his routine investigation of our vehicle being struck and the pursuit, he came across what he did.”
The captain notified Sheriff Keller, who then called neighboring Jefferson County for help with an independent investigation. From there, State Police officials were notified.
Keller confirmed he has seen the video. He did not describe what he saw.
“I’m not going to get into my feelings on it,” he said. “I saw there was something there that needed to be investigated.”
State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill, speaking this week on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” has seen the video and described what happened after the teen left the crashed vehicle.
“He’s placed on the road,” Cahill said. “At that point, he’s trying to be handcuffed. It goes on for probably a minute, and that’s when you see a series of blows and resistance.”
Governor Justice said this week that he has not seen the video, but it has been described to him.
“What you had is a 16-year-old kid who did something stupid and ran into a sheriff’s cruiser or whatever like that and then took off. And then you had the reaction of people who aren’t 16.”
“They took the job knowing their behavior can’t be 16. And in all honesty you had way beyond necessary force. You had beating of a kid.”
Media such as West Virginia MetroNews, along with ACLU of West Virginia, have been asking for public disclosure of the video.
Keller said it would be available once investigations are complete. But he said it should not be released until then.
“When you’re dealing with an investigation of this caliber, we have to make sure for both sides, the defendant and the victim, that we treat them and do a thorough investigation. We’re still into the process.
“Can we get results soon? Week, two weeks maybe, yes.”