Two reports in the Gazette-Mail over the past few days have detailed how the West Virginia State Police deals with use-of-force and trooper misconduct accusations, and the overall picture is disturbing.
Examining four years of records between 2014 and 2019 (it would be five, but, for some reason, the State Police didn’t document its Early Identification System reports for 2017) shows a pattern of troopers undergoing an internal investigation for incidents ranging from wrongful death, excessive force and sexual assault, and being cleared — even when a review finds it likely they committed a crime.
Discipline seemingly only occurs after public awareness is raised regarding the trooper in question. And the public typically only becomes aware if there is a large legal settlement over the matter or if a video of something like the beating of a suspect is released.
Over the past five years, the State Police paid $3.1 million in lawsuit settlements and $400,000 in legal fees. All of that is taxpayer money.
It’s true that complaints against state troopers have decreased quite a bit over the past 20 years, but there are still officers who rack up multiple complaints over seriously reckless, sometimes life-threatening behavior and go back to their job cleared by an internal investigation.
The State Police has framed such instances involving the same trooper as “outliers,” but that doesn’t excuse one improper use of force or abuse of power, let alone several. West Virginians should be able to rely on state troopers to respond to incidents in a level-headed, professional manner. That’s not what happened when troopers savagely beat a 16-year-old in Martinsburg last year. That’s not what happened when a trooper shot and killed a teenager in 2014 after the officer had been looking for teens who had been on his property and allegedly thrown wet underwear on his cruiser. That’s not what happened when a trooper in 2017 allegedly raped a woman after arresting her boyfriend.
And why should troopers be concerned about their conduct if they know they’ll face a review board that will clear them?
Maybe there’s no foolproof way to completely rid any law enforcement agency of officers who will abuse their power, but the State Police review system as it exists almost invites it.
Bringing in another agency to externally investigate these incidents is one place to start. Holding troopers accountable with an effective deterrent and taking action before one trooper becomes involved in multiple incidents would reduce misconduct even further, possibly even preventing misconduct in the first place.
The taxpayers should also see how much of their money is being spent to settle these cases. Yes, the settlements are public record, but there’s no way to see them unless you know where to look or it gets picked up by the news media. Maybe the West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management, which keeps the data for all legal damages or settlements paid out by any state agency, should put them online.
Keeping all of this in house isn’t working. Independent investigations and transparency over legal settlements can only help bring more accountability.