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Morrisey once again says police review board would run afoul of state code

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey Thursday reiterated his belief that the creation of a Morgantown Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board would violate state law.

Even so, Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty, who chairs the special committee that spent seven months crafting the ordinance that would create the board, said it’s not going away.   

That ordinance was presented to Morgantown City Council at the end of January before being sent to Morrisey’s office for review.

If adopted, the  law would create a nine-person  board  that could audit existing MPD policies and procedures and make recommendations, hold public meetings and take input from the public and receive, review, investigate and hold hearings on civilian complaints.  

In a Thursday letter to Morgantown City Attorney Ryan Simonton, Morrisey spelled out many of the same points he made in September, when he issued a letter warning the city off the effort.

Morrisey notes Morgantown’s proposed police review board would violate sections of state law that require such complaints and any other matters that may result in punitive action against a police officer to be investigated and adjudicated through the city’s Police Civil Service Commission.  

He also argues state law does not provide cities the ability to grant such authority to a separate entity, even to hold hearings or issue recommended actions. 

Additionally, Morrisey said, the creation of similar bodies in other states has no standing as West Virginia code sets up civil service commissions as the “complete and exclusive system” for the investigation of alleged police misconduct.

“It remains the opinion of the Office of the Attorney General that the Morgantown City Council does not have the legal authority to enact any municipal ordinance purporting to conduct investigations or hearings in connection with complaints relating to members of the Morgantown Police Department,” Morrisey wrote. “Any such ordinance would directly conflict with the express provisions of W.Va. Code … I hope this opinion persuades the Council to take no action in this matter that would violate West Virginia law.”

Morrisey’s opinion is shared by the Mon-Preston Fraternal Order of Police, which represents nearly all of Morgantown’s officers. The body has said it will sue if such a review board is created.

Fetty said Morrisey’s response is “probably what we could have expected,” but will not bring an end to the effort.

“Whether the ordinance in its entirety will be presented to city council for consideration immediately or whether we will change some of the parts of the ordinance to address the concerns that were raised by the attorney general, I can’t say. That will be decided in an open meeting by the committee itself,” she said. “I can just say that from my perspective as the chair, that we are still committed to addressing the requests of our constituents and our residents.”

Fetty said the special committee is looking for greater accountability and responsiveness to citizen complaints as a means to improve the relationship between the MPD and the city’s residents.

“We remain committed to responding to the concerns that were raised by civilians and raised by our constituents this past summer, and we remain committed to exploring a civilian review board as a mechanism for making that happen,” she said.

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