Editorials, Opinion

Are ‘bad apples’ too hard to get rid of?

The Department of Homeland Security, at Gov. Jim Justice’s request, launched multiple investigations into incidents involving state police after two anonymous letters were sent several months ago to the Justice administration and several lawmakers. The allegations go back years, ranging from financial fraud and misuse of funds, to stealing an unattended envelope full of money from a casino, to videotaping female officers in a state police locker room. 

As investigations continue, Justice has promised transparency. That is a promise that he, his administration and the state police interim superintendent, Jack Chambers, must keep. We understand and respect that certain aspects must be kept private to ensure the investigation’s integrity. However, the more opaque an investigation is, the more it invites speculation and mistrust. 

Everyone is entitled to due process — a fair and thorough inquiry into any accusation of wrongdoing. But it seems there are so many protections in place for law enforcement, and so many hoops to jump through just to punish legitimate bad behavior, that questionable incidents get swept under the rug and “bad apples” are nearly impossible to get rid of. 

Former superintendent Jan Cahill recently said he couldn’t have fired anyone even if he wanted to. As Cahill said, “It doesn’t matter how egregious an act a person does right in front of us. All we could do is put someone on administrative leave, perhaps without pay, do an investigation and then I could say this person’s terminated — and then they still have 10 days to review the actions against them.”  

He was referring to the 2021 case in which an off-duty trooper picked up an unattended envelope filled with more than $750 in cash — and was caught doing so by the casino’s security cameras. Paperwork showed a fellow trooper failed to refer the case to any higher authority for further investigation. The trooper accused of the theft was permitted to retire. It’s unclear what happened to the trooper who filed the report. 

The recordings of a state police women’s locker room are believed to have been made in 2015 by a now-deceased trooper; more recently, several officers found a thumb drive with the videos and destroyed it. Cahill said he wasn’t aware of the videos or the thumb drive’s destruction until 2020. Still, that means he knew about them for at least two years before Justice ordered DHS to investigate the anonymous letters’ claims. It seems the case was permitted to die with the alleged perpetrator, without ever notifying the victims. It’s unclear if any action was taken against the officers who destroyed the thumb drive. 

Closer to home, the civil service hearings involving former Westover police officer Aaron Dalton suggests police are not always held to the same standards under the law as the public. At best, Dalton was permitted to remain on the force for years despite multiple complaints against him, including not one, but two credible excessive force complaints that Westover ultimately settled. In addition, his fellow officers claim he had a pattern of abusive behavior. At worst — as Dalton’s defense suggests — the overall culture in Westover PD was so toxic that rampant sexual harassment, verbal abuse — including racial slurs — and straight-up bullying thrived with few consequences for any officer involved. 

Perhaps that is the problem: There are so many protections for officers built into the system that the handful of bad apples feel certain they can behave badly with virtually no consequences. 

The full saying is “a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” Even if a handful of bad officers don’t spoil the whole department, a few bad officers can ruin the public’s perception of a whole department. Insiders may know who the good ones and the bad ones are but, in the absence of transparency, the public doesn’t. Despite general support for law enforcement, such uncertainty can poison a community’s relationship with its local police.