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Editorial: Another horrifying encounter with a police officer

A sour joke goes: Q: How many police officers does it take to knock a suspect down a stairway? A: None — he slipped and fell.

Internal police investigations usually find officers innocent after they’re accused of brutality or other offenses. We wonder if that outcome will result from the Mercer County tragedy in which a state trooper shot a bipolar teen to death.

Here’s the case, as related by Gazette reporter Kate White:

Senior Trooper B.D. Gillespie had conflicts with his neighbors on Kegley Trestle Road. Mary Chambers, 72, called him a “bully” and said the officer threatened $250 fines for people piling up tree limbs and other debris. Michelle Hill said he sat on his porch with a radar gun and yelled at teens riding four-wheelers.

Hill said Trooper Gillespie complained because her son, Timothy, rode a trail motorcycle on the street — and the officer took videos and photos of him. The mother grew so worried that she asked Mercer County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Parks for advice regarding what she considered harassment. The mother commented:

“I figured he [Gillespie] would try to arrest him over something stupid once he turned 18, or try to beat him up. That’s kind of what I was expecting. I didn’t know he was going to kill my son right in front of my house.”

She said her son’s bipolar medication made him restless, so he sometimes walked at night. On the night of June 17, according to a State Police announcement, Trooper Gillespie’s wife screamed that three people were tampering with cars in their driveway. The officer searched and found three walking a quarter-mile away.

The announcement says the Hill teen grew belligerent and refused to put his hands behind his back while being searched. The officer struck him with a police club and doused him with pepper spray. Fighting ensued, and a neighbor tried to pull the youth off the trooper. All three rolled into a culvert.

The neighbor told TV reporters that Trooper Gillespie stood up, but the teen continued resisting, “and then I heard two gunshots.” The youth was killed. The State Police statement said he had tried to grab the officer’s weapon.

Will an investigation by the State Police Professional Standards Section find the officer blameless?

Up until now, the State Police has concealed the section’s findings about many accused officers — even though lawsuits frequently force taxpayers to shell out huge settlements to victims of beatings or sexual coercion. One report said 13 troopers were fired for misconduct in 2009, and 19 others resigned to avoid discipline. But the report didn’t provide names.

In 2010, the Gazette sued to make such investigations public. Last fall, the state Supreme Court ruled that the force may no longer hide cases. Currently, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey is examining 1,200 files to determine which ones shall be released.

West Virginia taxpayers fund the State Police. The people are entitled to know all facts about behavior by officers they pay.

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