Editorials, Opinion

What is going on in Westover?

While the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 put racism and inequity in the national spotlight, another key feature of the protests was highlighting police brutality and government corruption.

The backlash against the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others was not just about cruelty to Black bodies, but about a law enforcement system that empowers officers to use violence — sometimes to the point of lethal force — and local governments that allow such violence to continue through little-to-no consequences or even going so far as to cover up incidences of obvious wrongdoing.

We are seeing the very things the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies have fought against play out in Westover, our own microcosm of a national tragedy.

The Dominion Post has over 18 articles chronicling the drama in Westover, the majority of which centers around its police department. It starts with the New Year’s Day 2019 arrest and brutal beating of Andre Howton. Howton called Westover police to have a woman removed from his property. The incident ended with Officer Zachary Fecsko beating Howton (caught on Officer Aaron Dalton’s bodycam) while Dalton subdued a neighbor who tried to intervene. Howton ended up with multiple broken bones and three teeth knocked out. Then-Police Chief Rick Panico justified the violence as “self-defense.”

Eight months later, in August 2019, Dalton and Officer Justice Carver assaulted William Cox for filming their police cruiser as it drove by. Cox’s lawsuit against the officers alleges they “repeatedly punched him in the head and face with a closed fist, kicked him with knee strikes to his lower body and pepper sprayed his eyes and face.” The beating was captured by a nearby business’ security camera. Carver and Dalton took Cox’s phone and it disappeared for over two years, only recently resurfacing in Westover Police Department’s evidence room, broken.

And then there’s the two federal lawsuits (both naming Dalton, in particular); one state lawsuit; a letter condemning a Westover officer (confirmed to be Dalton, though not named in the letter) for egregious misconduct against citizens as well as fellow officers; another The Dominion Post article detailing criminal charges against Fecsko prior to his hiring and circumstances around which Dalton was fired or forced to resign from the Fairmont Police for misconduct and racial profiling before he was hired by Westover; a state-led investigation into the entire department; an audio recording alleging the WPD covered up Dalton’s misdeeds — often at the request of Mayor Dave Johnson; one of the letter’s signers accusing Johnson of firing her in retribution for speaking out; Panico’s resignation; the Westover city attorney calling West Virginia’s only Black female state delegate a “b***h” after she called out the city for no longer being a safe place (echoing several Westover residents who spoke at earlier council meetings); council still punting the issue of Dalton’s employment, leaving him on continued paid administrative leave for more than a year (while Fecsko and Carver were never suspended); and … and …

What could possibly come next?

This — hiring cops with known histories of violence or racism, ignoring misconduct against fellow officers, covering up or defending excessive violence against the public — is a huge part of what the 2020 protests were fighting. Cities, municipalities and counties across the country have taken a hard look at their law enforcement policies and practices and taken steps to prevent or resolve the very things we’ve listed here today. Westover needs to do the same. The community can never thrive if it can’t trust the people who make the rules and the ones who enforce them.