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Creation of police review board gets first approval from Morgantown Council

MORGANTOWN — After a 10-month process that included some two dozen public meetings, a long list of community participants and public pushback from law enforcement locally and in Charleston,  the city of Morgantown is one vote away from creating its civilian police review and advisory board.

Morgantown City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to pass a first reading of the ordinance creating the board.

The version before council is substantially different than the document that spent months before the special committee on community policing.

Gone are the body’s abilities to conduct investigations and hold hearings.

These changes, which were unveiled and approved by the special committee before its final meeting on April 20, came about after members of the committee sat down with Police Chief Eric Powell and City Manager Kim Haws.

While the changes appear to 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, that remains to be seen.

Both the AG’s office and the FOP’s attorney pointed out that state code gives the power to investigate complaints against the police solely to the city’s Police Civil Service Commission.  

Under the ordinance as previously written, civilian complaints could have been taken up and investigated by the board, up to and including the ability to  use subpoena power and conduct hearings.

Under the ordinance as currently written, 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 will review the findings and  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.

Members of council and the special committee noted the amount of work that’s gone into this process since the death of George Floyd and subsequent events raised questions about policing nationwide.

Councilor Jenny Selin said the fact that the sides were ultimately able to come together to find middle ground should be applauded.

“I was frustrated when some people, when there was some give and take happening near the end. I have a background as a mediator and I have a law background. I hate hearing people say, ‘So and so gave in on this or there was a compromise,’ ” She said. “Compromise and discussion are hard work and this group did a lot of hard work.”

It was also noted that this would be the first such police review board of its kind in West Virginia.

Mayor Ron Dulaney pointed out that depending on what the legal representatives for Morgantown’s officers in the FOP have to say, the process may not be winding down, but just getting started.

“I think if there’s something that’s the right thing to do and you don’t believe it’s illegal, the threat of a lawsuit is not the reason not to do it,” Dulaney said. “I believe this is the right thing to do and it’s  unfortunate if we can’t agree without attorneys and outside the court of law.”

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