Editorials, Opinion

Yes, we need a civilian review board

“I think the idea of this [civilian police review and advisory board] and officer acceptance of this, there’s really not as big a chasm or gap [as] that might have been portrayed or thought,” Morgantown Interim Police Chief Eric Powell said last week.

We’re glad to hear it. Now, how do we bridge that gap?

On one side stands quite a few people in Morgantown. Based on the numerous letters to the editor and essays we’ve received from the community, there is undoubtedly support for it.

On the other side stands West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and the Fraternal Order of Police. Morrisey insists such a board is illegal according to state code and the FOP has threatened to sue the city if the advisory board is created.

When it comes to Morrisey’s argument … We’d like a second opinion. Because as far as we can tell, the state code does not forbid the creation of a civilian review board. The particular section Morrisey likes to quote says, “to furnish a complete and exclusive system for the appointment, promotion, reinstatement, removal, discharge, suspension and reduction of all members of all paid police departments … .”

 The civilian police review and advisory board cannot hire or promote any officers, nor can it fire or suspend them. All it can do is review policies and procedures, investigate and make recommendations. Can someone other than Morrisey say where the state code violation occurs?

As for the FOP, Powell shed a little light on officers’ worries when he spoke to the special committee charged with creating the board: “I just feel like there’s … a jumping to the conclusion that when that person files a complaint, then that’s a sure indicator there’s problem within the police department.”

We can respect that particular fear. United States law says “innocent until proven guilty,” but the court of public opinion operates differently: Guilty (or sometimes innocent) based on first impressions, where proof to the contrary must be provided beyond the shadow of a doubt.

At the same time, though, part of the reason a review board is even under consideration is because it often looks to the public like officers are never held accountable when they do something wrong. To the community, an officer can never be “proven guilty” because the system meant to investigate him or her is broken.

The creation of a new board may seem heavy-handed, as Powell put it, to the officers under investigation, but to the general public, the current system (which includes a police civil service commission) seems entirely hands-off.

One of the stipulations in the current ordinance says if the police chief chooses lesser discipline than what is recommended by the board, then the chief must submit an explanation. We’re sure that’s a headache for the chief, but it’s a huge step toward transparency and regaining the public’s trust. Otherwise, it looks like the infamous blue line is closing ranks to protect itself. And that is exactly what the civilian police review and advisory board is meant to prevent: Both the practice and appearance of police protecting themselves first and foremost.