Morgantown Creates Civilian Police Review Board
Morgantown City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to create a civilian police review board, the culmination of a year-long process sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
In the wake of Floyd’s murder and nationwide protests, Morgantown city officials and community members started to talk about how their city could benefit from a police board with civilian members. The city formed a special committee and it began meeting weekly to hash out the proposal’s details.
“I cannot thank the folks who showed up to the committee enough,” said Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty during Tuesday’s meeting. “We received the contributions and the careful recommendations and thoughts of really every segment of the population that I can think of, from folks within the department, folks who are married to members of the Morgantown police department, folks who have experienced being policed as persons of color or as members of LGBTQ+ groups, or as human beings.”
The board is the second of its kind in the state, but the first to be created by a city. Bluefield has a similar police review board, formed in the wake of a consent decree by the Department of Justice.
The Morgantown ordinance approved by the council looks markedly different from earlier plans that would’ve given the power to investigate citizen complaints of police misconduct.
The power to investigate was removed from the plan following threats of legal action from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and the Mon-Preston Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
Wheeling-based attorney Teresa Toriseva, who represents the FOP, told the Dominion Post Tuesday that she will file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the board. Under the ordinance, the police chief will carry out any police conduct investigations and then send the findings and disciplinary actions to the review board.
The review board will be able to accept the police chief’s actions or suggest their own recommendation, a level of oversight Toriseva says is in violation of state code. The FOP’s view on the board’s legality is not universally held.
“What is at issue here is the question of who runs the Morgantown police department, the chief or the FOP and Ms. Toriseva,” said Bob Cohen, a retired attorney and member of the Morgantown/Kingwood branch of the NAACP. “Here, Chief Powell has accepted the process outlined in the ordinance but the FOP says he cannot do so. Under a strange interpretation of West Virginia statutes, the FOP is attempting to dictate the chief's process and to tie his hands. Council should not bend to their threat.”
Cohen was one of seven speakers during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s council meeting. Community members and representatives from the Morgantown Human Rights Commission, ACLU of WV, and Morgantown/Kingwood NAACP all spoke in favor of the bill.
“Whenever we help marginalized communities, we help everybody,” said Jerry Carr, president of the Morgantown/Kingwood branch of the NAACP. “So, I just want to make sure that people understand that no one got in this business thinking that it was just about helping that one group. This is something that's ubiquitous, it can impact every facet of what's going on, including the police department.”
Under the ordinance, civilians can file complaints against police officers with the board. The board will pass them onto the Morgantown police chief for investigation.
Fetty said this is a significant change from the previous system that required community members to go to the police department and file a complaint directly.
“At the end of the day, the most critical piece is that we will, as a community be contributing to this discussion about how policing will work in our community and how we'd like to see it unfold and how we can contribute and cooperate with the Morgantown police department to ensure that policing happens in a safe and careful way that is respectful of everyone's constitutional rights, and respectful also of the rights that our officers have as employees of the city,” said Fetty.