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Hinton police chief fired following alleged domestic incident

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The Hinton police chief — who is the target of a federal lawsuit filed in December alleging that he used excessive force on a Summers County man by beating him and hitting him three times with a stun gun without provocation — was terminated this week based on his “job performance,” according to Hinton City Councilman Larry Meador.

Hinton Mayor Joe Blankenship announced Derek Snavely’s termination at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, according to the Beckley Register-Herald. The firing took effect immediately and came about after Snavely was placed on a temporary leave from the department following a domestic dispute call at his home nearly three weeks ago, the newspaper reported.

On July 30, police responded to a call at Snavely’s home around 2:30 a.m. Steve Lipscomb, director of Summers County E-911, said the call came from a third party who was not at the residence. According to the Register-Herald, the alleged victim reported that Snavely had left home with a gun and that she feared for her safety and the safety of others.

Hinton police initially responded to the incident, but called Summers County Sheriff’s Office deputies for backup, a representative from the sheriff’s office said. According to the newspaper, officers recovered a 9mm Glock from Snavely when he arrived back at the scene.

Following the incident, the City Council held a special meeting where its members voted to grant Snavely 28 days of paid vacation, as long as he consented to a psychiatric evaluation, the newspaper reported. Before Blankenship’s announcement Tuesday, Snavely was set to return to work on Sept. 3

Meador wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon that he had no further information about the circumstances, but that the city of Hinton is now accepting applications for the position of police chief.

Neither Snavely nor Blankenship could be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Snavely has been no stranger to controversy during his years in law enforcement.

John Bryan, a Union-based attorney representing Robert McPherson, a man who filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia against Snavely and the city of Hinton alleging excessive force by Snavely, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the former police chief’s troubles of three weeks ago. Bryan said he had heard several people voicing concern about Snavely for a while.

“This is kind of a problem West Virginia has — if someone leaves a position, even if they should [leave] for a good reason, it’s cheaper to hire them on somewhere else instead of hiring someone who doesn’t have that certification,” Bryan said. “Unless that certification is gone, they are probably going to be picked up somewhere else.”

In his lawsuit, McPherson alleges that, in January 2016, Snavely punched him in the face — unprovoked — before proceeding to “violently beat” him outside a Kroger store.

According to the lawsuit, an employee at Kroger called the police because he suspected McPherson was using drugs in the grocery store’s bathroom. When Snavely arrived at the scene, McPherson and a woman he was with were outside the store, the lawsuit states. When asked if he had anything on him that was illegal, McPherson said no and emptied his pockets, handing over a bottle of pills prescribed to the woman he was with, who had asked him to carry them for her while they were in the store, the lawsuit says.

McPherson, the lawsuit states, knew Snavely “by reputation” and requested that another officer come to the scene — a request that Snavely allegedly refused. That’s when Snavely — “without justification or provocation” — punched McPherson in the face, according to the lawsuit.

The entire incident reportedly was caught on surveillance cameras outside the Kroger and, based on the footage, the lawsuit states, McPherson was in no way acting as a threat to anyone. After Snavely punched him, the lawsuit states, the attack escalated and McPherson “was in fear for his life” but at no time during the beating did he “ever strike, attempt to strike, or threaten to strike [Snavely].”

According to the lawsuit, the beating continued for about 10 minutes before Snavely became tired and shot McPherson three times with his stun gun. McPherson, while being shocked for the third time, allegedly grabbed the stun gun and threw it out of Snavely’s reach.

McPherson was arrested and indicted on charges of unlawful assault on a police officer and disarming a police officer, of which he was only found guilty of the latter.

Snavely, according to the lawsuit, later testified that he believed “a use of force continuum was ‘old school’ ” and that he normally went “directly to whatever level of force he wanted to, regardless of reasonableness.” He also testified that his only regret was not shooting McPherson after he grabbed the stun gun.

Before being hired by Hinton, Snavely served as a West Virginia State Police trooper in Charleston. He resigned from his post after a woman accused him in 2008 of raping her while on duty, according to reports in The Charleston Gazette at the time.

Following a days-long trial in 2011, where the woman alleged that Snavely followed her home and raped her and he claimed the encounter was consensual, a jury sided with Snavely and no charges were brought against him.

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Reach her at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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