Public Criticizes Police Department’s ‘Use Of Force’ Policy At Community Forum

Nov 5, 2019

Delegate Danielle Walker from Morgantown holds a sign calling for the city of Charleston to implement racial bias training on Tuesday, Nov. 5, outside a public forum at the local Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A decades-old policy regarding the Charleston Police Department’s permitted use of force was under fire Tuesday night as city leaders and their constituents gathered to discuss a recent and controversial incident involving two local officers. 

The mayor’s office, the police department and area clergy held a community forum at the local Emmanuel Baptist Church to address an investigation police concluded in late October. Two officers were reviewed for the way they arrested 27-year-old Freda Gilmore earlier this month, a black woman with special needs.

Police said Gilmore had been resisting arrest.

The department’s Professional Standards Division determined the officers, mentioned at the forum as Joshua Mena and Carlie McCoy, had followed the department’s policy appropriately, and after almost a week of paid administrative leave the officers were allowed to return to their jobs on Friday, Oct. 25. 

However, several community members and leaders who spoke Tuesday night continue to scrutinize the handling of the arrest, which was captured on video and shared hundreds of times across Facebook. In the video, one officer is holding Gilmore against the pavement, while another officer appears to be punching her. 

“[T]here is no policy that could justify, in this particular instance ... the behavior of the officer that administered the blows to that young woman laying flat on the ground, with an officer on her back,” said Ricardo Martin, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP.

“If there is a policy [or] if there is a training video that you can hold up to that particular incident and the way it was handled, and say that this policy exonerates the misbehavior of that officer, we’re in trouble,” Martin added. 

When some attendees requested to hear the policy for themselves, Police Chief Opie Smith described it as being “thirty-paged” and something he wished he had the words to explain. 

Sgt. Jason Webb, who works with the department’s public services unit, mentioned the policy dates back to the 1980s. 

“Our 'use of force' policy is based on a continuum,” Webb explained to attendees. “So let’s say someone is verbally harassing someone else, then there’s a proper use of force for that, alright? This incident fell under active resistance, which is somebody actively resisting being put into custody by the police officers. Unfortunately, at this time, a fist is considered, under use of force policy, [an] impact weapon.”

Gilmore’s father and stepmother were present for the forum Tuesday night, in addition to Alisyn Proctor, the woman who recorded the incident on her cellphone. 

Proctor was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct the same evening as Gilmore, according to what police said at the forum.

“It’s just not right, the way my daughter was treated by a police officer,” said father Richard Gilmore. “Then they go do their own investigation, and then let the officers go back to work like it’s okay.”

Several people also complained about the police department’s internal investigation, saying the matter should’ve been examined by an external group and it lacked transparency. Forum attendees said they were disappointed the officers were allowed to return regardless of the policy, and that during the investigation the officers continued receiving pay for their time away. 

Some attendees shared lists of requests with Mayor Amy Goodwin and Police Chief Smith. That includes a group of several pastors representing churches in the Charleston area, who are asking Goodwin and the city council to respond in writing within ten days.

“We respectfully request that the mayor immediately refer this case for independent review, by the Kanawha County Prosecutor and the FBI, for a thorough investigation and evaluation of the conduct of the patrolmen in question,” said Rev. Dr. Lloyd Allan Hill. “We request that the patrolmen McCoy and Mena be returned immediately to administrative leave, pending the results of that independent review, by the aforementioned agencies.”

A coalition to “#KeepUsSafeCharlestonWV” held a press conference in the church lobby roughly half an hour before the forum to share their requests, which include revising the police department’s “use of force” policy, mandating police officers to have working body cameras on them during all shifts and creating a mental health intervention team. 

This #KeepUsSafeCharlestonWV coalition also requested the police department finish implementing an eight-point anti-racism platform that the city started a few years ago but never finished. 

The coalition and the NAACP, one of the groups forming the coalition, called on the city multiple times Tuesday night to support the creation of citizen review boards to monitor police activities and discipline officers who are out of compliance.

“It’s something that they have started before, but there’s kind of been a fall off from that,” said Andrea Tyree, communications specialist for Healthy Kids and Families WV, another group in the coalition. “So we’re specifically asking them to continue releasing monthly data on their arrest demographics, and actually conduct the annual coalition-lead anti-racism trainings.”

During the forum, West Virginia NAACP President Owens Brown mentioned his group had proposed the creation of such a board in Wheeling in 2017, but nothing came to fruition. 

This article was updated on Wednesday, Nov. 13., to accurately reflect the gender of the officers involved.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.