Gazette-Mail editorial: Bill would scare off victims of police misconduct

There’s a key word in a bill that was amended and passed by the West Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday that would make it a crime to file a false report against a police officer for misconduct.

The word is “knowingly.” As in, you have to “knowingly” file a false report against an officer to be charged and prosecuted.

Before Senate Bill 144 headed back its chamber of origin, key members of the House tried to allay fears that the bill would deter people from reporting officer misconduct with the old argument that, if you’re not lying, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

But whether someone “knowingly” complained about an officer in bad faith isn’t as straightforward as it seems. That definition can certainly be argued many ways in court chambers or interrogation rooms, places where the authorities have all the leverage. It’s disturbing that this bill would pass now, in the wake of so many high-profile incidents where police went far beyond a measured response to a situation, some ending up punished for their behavior and others not.

Equally concerning is how far this bill has morphed from its original version in the Senate, where it was introduced as a measure to allow police to charge someone who files a false police report about a misdemeanor crime (under existing law, filing a false report is a crime only if it alleges a felony offense).

No police officer wants to be the subject of a fabricated allegation of misconduct, and no one should file such a grievance under false pretenses. But there is already a process for that — one that could be argued already doesn’t fairly represent the victims in cases where complaints are valid. This new measure is overkill.

It will only serve to scare victims from speaking up or facilitate retaliation against them. The Senate should reject these changes, and put the focus back on the bill’s original intent.