Two Charleston police officers bowed their heads and prayed with anti-abortion protesters in front of West Virginia’s only remaining abortion services provider, according to a video taken of a gathering in front of the clinic last month.
The police officers were outside the Women’s Health Center, on Charleston’s West Side, in response to a call and were on the scene for a matter of minutes, according to a statement from the city. Two calls came in — one saying protesters were parked in a no-parking zone, and another saying several protesters were on Greendale Drive, including a woman who was in the road with a flag, according to Metro 911.
After the Gazette-Mail asked about the incident, city officials put out a statement Tuesday afternoon that said an internal police investigation had found “officers remained neutral during the interaction.”
Following a directive from Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin, Police Chief Opie Smith “gathered all the facts and reviewed the matter with the officers involved,” City Attorney Kevin Baker said in a statement. “While the officers remained neutral during the interaction, Chief Smith is reminding all officers to not only remain neutral in such scenarios, but to remain vigilant of how their actions might be perceived by those without the benefit of all information.”
Charleston Police Department spokeswoman Lt. Autumn Davis said the police department had no comment.
The video, which appeared on the Facebook page of Speak Life WV, a religious group that posts anti-abortion content on its page, was a livestream from an event held June 22. The event, described by one member of the group as a “church service” and “prayer walk,” was held on a day the clinic was closed.
The video is about an hour and forty minutes long. After around 50 minutes, three Charleston police officers are seen approaching the group. The officers can be heard in the video explaining the group cannot approach anyone or hand anything to them. After about five minutes, the officers joined the group in prayer.
The incident took place a couple of weeks after city council passed an ordinance prohibiting protesters from blocking the entrance or exit of any health care facility and from approaching a person or providing pamphlets or advice without their consent, among other things.
Jamie Miller, a volunteer for the clinic, was the one who brought the video to the police chief and mayor’s attention. Miller said she was told by city officials the prayer was for the officers’ protection.
“I thought they were joining in on the prayer,” Miller said. “When that’s on a live video and women who trust [police officers] view it and they see them participating in this prayer, it makes it seem like they are on someone’s side.”
Miller said she supports the police and what they do, noting it was the police chief who spoke in favor of the ordinance.
Despite the ordinance, protesters continue to gather outside the clinic. Last week, a protester posted a video on the Facebook page West Virginia Voice, an anti-abortion group, where he is shouting at an employee while she was driving into the parking lot.
Those who violate the ordinance can be found guilty of a misdemeanor offense and, upon conviction, may be jailed up to 30 days, fined up to $500 — or both — according to the proposed ordinance. Zero arrests were made at the clinic between July 2018 to July 2019, according to the Charleston Police Department.