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Powers of police review board cut as it heads back for city council review

MORGANTOWN — The May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd touched off weeks of national unrest and put a spotlight on policing — resulting  locally in calls for the creation of a Morgantown Community Police Review & Advisory Board. 

On Tuesday, literally as a Minneapolis jury was finding former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of Floyd’s death, a special committee that spent months working on an  ordinance creating the review board approved last minute changes that substantially altered what it’s allowed to do.   

The ordinance will go back for city council review next month with all powers to conduct investigations and hearings removed from the body — changes that fall in line with feedback and warnings of potential legal action from the West Virginia Attorney General’s office and local Fraternal Order of Police.

Rich Burks, of the Morgantown/Kingwood branch of the NAACP, said the changes came about after a sitdown with Morgantown City Manager Kim Haws and Chief of Police Eric Powell.

“I think we all came to the conclusion during our conversation that no matter what model or form the board would actually take, the most important part of this is communication,” Burks said. “We need to make sure we have open communication between the city manager, the police department, the board and the public. No matter what we do, if we don’t have that it’s going to be ineffective.”

Previously, all complaints would have been taken up  through the board itself, which would have then investigated the matter and offered suggestions on discipline or policy changes to the chief of police.

In the revised ordinance, complaints are funneled through the board to the police chief and city manager’s office, and vice versa.

Upon the completion of an internal investigation of alleged misconduct, the police chief will prepare findings and, if appropriate, recommendations for policy changes or officer discipline that will be shared with the board. The chief will also  share all relevant evidence, unless he refers the matter to the prosecutor’s office.

The board may appoint a three-member panel to review the findings and may request further information from the chief. The board cannot interview police officers but may ask questions of the complainant, witnesses or outside experts.

The board will notify the chief if any changes are suggested. The chief will then move forward and is under no obligation to modify his actions in light of the board’s review.

The identity of complainants, witnesses and officers will be kept confidential by the board.

Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty, who chairs the special committee, said she doesn’t anticipate the changes going back to the attorney general’s office for additional review.

So now it’s on to city council.

Morgantown/Kingwood NAACP President Jerry Carr said that despite the changes, the body can provide the necessary oversight.

“It’s still what it says in the title. It’s a review and advisory board,” he said. “At the heart of this document, the intent, the goals, all those things are pretty much the same.”

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