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Committee discusses authority to investigate police misconduct cases

MORGANTOWN — “Investigation” was the word at the center of conversation Monday as Morgantown’s special committee on community policing met remotely.

As in, should the ordinance enabling a new community policing and citizen review board give the board the authority to  independently investigate citizen complaints of police misconduct?

Already unpopular with officers with the Morgantown  Police Department, the idea of investigations, potentially leading to officer hearings, picked up added scrutiny last month when West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey weighed in, warning the city that it does not have the authority to take such action.

Doing so, Morrisey warned, would conflict with state code and open the city to litigation.

Even so, those participating in Monday’s special committee meeting seemed unified around the opinion that the ability to investigate is crucial.

“If we’re going to have this board do the job of reviewing civilian complaints, I do not know how we do that in an appropriate manner if the board does not have the ability to ask questions,” Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty said.

She continued.

“This is solely my opinion. My opinion alone. I do not believe that the attorney general’s suggestion to us that they are going to sue us for investigating civilian complaints is based on a full picture of what we’re working so hard on here, nor is it free of some kind of political intent.”

While the body would have the authority to investigate — which could include the use of an outside investigator with the authority to gather evidence through subpoena — the final call on any discipline would remain with the chief of police.

It was also noted that much of what the body would be set up to do is review department policies and procedures.

Only in instances of alleged police misconduct would the body’s investigative powers be relevant.

In the event of such a citizen complaint, an investigation would be held to determine  probable cause. If probable cause to proceed is found, the process would move to conciliation and, finally, to a hearing.

“The investigatory process is limited to a situation where there has been some complaint from some citizen to the board,” NAACP member Bob Cohen explained. “That’s the only place where there would be that kind of investigatory process.”