MORGANTOWN — Morgantown Interim Police Chief Eric Powell is not in an enviable position.
He admits as much.
- He’s a candidate to be chief after 22 years with the department.
- His employer’s policy-making body is pushing forward with a community policing citizen advisory and review board in light of national events.
- The officers that make up the department he’s running are largely lined up against such oversight, according to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 87, which counts an overwhelming majority of the department among its members.
Powell said he was initially in favor of the board when he believed its extent would be citizen review and recommendations regarding existing department processes and procedures.
“I actually thought it would be a nice opportunity for people to become more aware of just how thorough we do our jobs here, how seriously we take stuff and how professional the department is already. I kind of welcomed the additional outside scrutiny,” Powell said.
As the process of fleshing out the ordinance creating the board has progressed, however, it’s gotten into discussions of investigations, subpoenas and officer hearings.
“I’m not sure that what I envisioned is exactly what is — right now at least in the planning stages of it all — I don’t know if that’s what’s coming about. It’s still a process we’re working through,” he said. “The men and women who work here take a lot of pride in their work and that creates sensitivity when there’s a suggestion that maybe you’re not doing your job the right way. That’s why there’s been hesitation on the part of the law enforcement community, in general.”
“I acknowledge that it is a very precarious place that I am in, but those are my true thoughts on the issue,” he said, later adding “Adversarial or not, that’s what the implication is for many and it’s hard to get past that. It can’t help but erode the trust factor away a little bit and it makes officers uncomfortable about what the actual motive is behind it.”
Powell said he believes conversations have already gone well beyond citizen review and into a judiciary type body, which could call public hearings and recommend disciplinary actions to the chief.
The FOP has argued that a review body already exists in the form of the Police Civil Service Commission. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey echoed that sentiment in a recent letter warning the city it could overstep state code if it is not careful.
Powell said officers have the option to take issues before the commission if they are unsatisfied with the outcome of an internal investigation. It is up to the officer to provide any representation they may desire. Sometimes that comes in the form of another officer.
He said there isn’t a police union that’s going to step in and provide representation if a complaint is filed against an officer.
“Officers in this state don’t really have that level of representation when it comes to responding to allegations of misconduct. That is more or less why the process that’s in place is in place, to make sure those officers have a voice to adequately defend themselves,” he said.
Meanwhile, the effort to draft an ordinance creating the overview board continues.
Mayor Ron Dulaney sits on that board. He responded to Morrisey’s concerns on Tuesday, explaining the city’s efforts are an attempt to further strengthen the MPD’s position as a leader in community policing.
“The intent is not to limit the authority of a Civil Service Commission, circumvent state law, or give power to an independent board to directly discipline officers or instruct who is and is not hired within our police force,” Dulaney said. “The intent is to lead the way in providing opportunities for our family members, friends and neighbors, who are most affected by racial discrimination inherent in our national justice system, to be more fully heard.”