MORGANTOWN — Asked Monday what the Morgantown Police Department’s biggest needs are — manpower excluded — Deputy Chief PJ Scott responded there are no bigger needs.
In fact, he said, there’s nothing even close.
“Everything is kind of contingent on that. Our staffing is as low now as it’s probably been since 2004,” Scott said. “We’ve hired seven officers in the last 12 months, and we’ve lost eight.”
Scott and Capt. Matthew Solomon represented the department during Monday’s meeting of the Morgantown Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board.
Controversial in its origins, Monday marked the volunteer board’s second meeting and the first including members of the MPD.
While the session did include some specific policy questions, it was primarily a discussion about how the board and the department can work together to share and review data and policy moving forward.
“The primary goal is to get the community involved with public safety … We’re looking to be a conduit between the community and the police, and we want that to go two ways. We want the community to be able to speak their minds if they have questions and know how to be able to go about getting questions answered,” Chair Richard Burks said. “We’re going to be open and transparent about what we’re trying to do here.”
The meeting also included a fairly lengthy discussion of the department’s staffing situation.
Scott said the MPD’s seven new police academy graduates put the department at 62 officers out of 76 authorized positions. By the end of the year, he continued, that number will likely be around 56.
“In West Virginia, Mon County specifically struggles. I believe us, the sheriff’s department and WVU Police are the three lowest-staffed departments in the state, percentage-wise, by far. It’s rare you see one below 90%. We’re below 80%. We’ll be closer to 70% by the end of this year,” he said.
Both Scott and Solomon explained that when they went through testing to join the force, there were more than 100 people looking to fill a handful of spots. Now the department gets an average of 15-25 potential officers at quarterly testing opportunities, of which maybe two or three get through the process.
“With those numbers … we’re slowly sliding down due to attrition,” Scott said, later adding, “If staffing continues like this, we might look at going to a 12-hour shift, going away from three patrol shifts — day, afternoon and midnight — to just a day shift and night shift for 12 hours; combine the three into two so you can increase the staffing on both.”
Review Board Background
Almost exactly three years ago, and roughly one month after the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd, Morgantown City Council voted to form a special committee on community policing.
That body, comprised of members of council, city administration, representatives from various organizations and community volunteers, spent more than 10 months crafting the ordinance establishing the civilian oversight board.
The board, as initially proposed, could audit existing MPD policies and procedures and make recommendations; hold public meetings and take input from the public; and receive, review, investigate, subpoena and conduct hearings on civilian complaints.
“It was originally coming out of a concern that as a community we didn’t necessarily know how we deal with any kind of policing emergency,” Vice Chair Rachel Fetty explained Monday.
The city was cautioned throughout the process — both by legal counsel representing the Mon-Preston Fraternal Order of Police, and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — that it was in danger of running afoul of state law, which establishes the police civil service commission process as the only process through which matters can be addressed that could potentially result in punitive action against an officer.
The special committee responded by removing a number of the issues highlighted as objectionable.
Even so, on the morning after city council’s May 18, 2021, vote creating the board, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the FOP Lodge 87, which represents nearly all of Morgantown’s sworn officers.
Seven months later, Monongalia County Circuit Judge Susan Tucker ruled the city’s newly created oversight board was in violation of the state’s civil service law, and therefore invalid.
The city opted not to appeal the decision.
On May 17, 2022 — one year after council approved the original establishing ordinance — the body accepted a settlement through which the board could move forward without powers of investigation or participation in the complaint receipt process.
The review and advisory board retained the power to review existing police department policies and make recommendations about policy changes; conduct public outreach sessions; and make reports to city council on the board’s activities.
The board’s initial lineup includes Burks, Fetty, Nicole Lauffer (secretary), Robert Cohen, Dady Dadyburjor, Megan Gandy, Bryan Church and Catherine Fonseca. According to the city’s website, the nine-member board still has one vacancy.
It held its first meeting in April.
“I’ve been involved in the process for a very, very long time. A lot of what I’m feeling right now is just profound gratitude and appreciation for the fact that we’ve been able to get this far with this process. This process has been going on for so long,” Fetty said.