Sustained Outrage

Policing the police, part 2

“It’s our policy not to discuss personnel matters.”

That’s the standard answer reporters get when we call a ranking officer at a law enforcement agency and ask if any steps have been taken regarding an allegation of officer misconduct.

“But the public has the right to know if public servants…” we counter, only to run into another stock reply: “The results of internal investigations, if one was conducted, are confidential.” And that’s usually the end of it, because both of us know that internal records are protected by a Freedom of Information Act exemption, and if the police don’t volunteer any additional information, the press has no way of compelling them to produce it.

I ran into this very issue when I tried to figure out last year if any disciplinary action had been taken against any of the four troopers — Jason S. Crane, Paul A. Green, Kristy L. Layne and John K. Rapp Jr. — reportedly involved in the alleged June 2007 beating of Charleston lawyer Roger A. Wolfe while in police custody (and the alleged effort to cover up the incident).

Astute Gazette readers will recall that Layne was the trooper who issued tickets outside former Kanawha Circuit Judge Lyne Ranson’s wedding in July 2007. (Ranson told the Gazette that she felt that Layne and her boyfriend W.C. Moyers, a Kanawha County Sheriff’s deputy, targeted her guests because Ranson represented Moyers’ ex-wife in their divorce proceedings.) That incident led to Gov. Joe Manchin, who attended the reception, calling Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford at home.

A Gazette FOIA request revealed that a State Police sergeant at the Governor’s Mansion contacted Layne in her cruiser that night, and asked to speak with her using her personal cell phone (which is not subject to FOIA requests).

I didn’t make the Layne connection until Wolfe named her in his lawsuit in Kanawha Circuit Court more than a year later.

But when I called in July 2008, State Police officials flatly refused to discuss the Wolfe matter — or whether Layne’s alleged involvement in two high-profile incidents in less than a month had resulted in any disciplinary action. All I was told was that none of the officers in question were currently on administrative leave.

Were they ever? I asked, only to be told: “I can’t comment on that.”

I did contact the state auditor’s office, and was able to determine that none of the troopers had had their pay suspended or reduced between June 15, 2007 and July 31, 2008. In fact, Crane, Green and Layne’s pay went up three times during the period, while Rapp’s increased twice (presumably for annual raises in July).

According to a filing by State Police attorney John Hoyer in January 2009, the State Police have “completed Criminal and Administrative investigations into the incident and there has been no prosecution or discipline as far as the Response to Aggression.”

So it wasn’t until a year and a half after the Wolfe incident that the public was able to learn definitively that no disciplinary action had been taken.

As I posted earlier, the State Police refused to turn over the troopers’ personnel files and any records of complaints alleging trooper misconduct or any disciplinary action that may have been taken. One of Hoyer’s arguments was that disclosure would have a chilling effect on internal investigations, as his motion stated in federal court:

A police department that does not diligently supervise its officers may reap the benefits of its lack of diligence when the inevitable civil lawsuit is filed. Such a police department could simply plead ignorance when faced with a lawsuit alleging supervisory misconduct. By protecting information such as the information sought by [Wolfe], the Courts will encourage police departments to closely supervise their officers; thus, ensuring the best police force possible.

So, according to Hoyer’s logic, if you leave the police to their own devices, they will conduct good, thorough internal investigations. But if they know that someone else might eventually read the report, then officers will conduct a shoddy investigation so that those in charge can claim they had no idea what was going on and therefore aren’t responsible.

Does anyone else see a problem with that arrangement?

Here’s why Wolfe says he wants to review the troopers’ records, according to his response to Hoyer’s filing:

–[T]o show that the State Police had knowledge its troopers were engaging in misconduct, but took no corrective action, failed to enact policies and procedures to protect against police abuse, and attempted to cover-up this misconduct.

–To show that the State Police and its troopers have engaged in a pattern and practice of police misconduct and cover-ups.

–That the … [t]roopers intended to harm [Wolfe] and did not act in self defense or to maintain discipline.

–To demonstrate that the State Police routinely failed to sanction or discipline the [named] troopers.

Ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide whether or not these troopers violated Wolfe’s civil rights. (A federal grand jury has also launched a separate investigation into whether any crimes may have been committed.)

But if it weren’t for civil lawsuits like Wolfe’s, many details about how the police polices itself would never become public. As a 1972 federal court ruling in Wood v. Breyer noted:

Each citizen “acts as a private attorney general who ‘takes on the mantel of the sovereign,’ ” guarding for all of us the individual liberties enunciated in the Constitution. Section 1983 represents a balancing feature in our governmental structure whereby individual citizens are encouraged to police those who are charged with policing us all. Thus, it is of special import that suits brought under this statute be resolved by a determination of the truth rather than by a determination that the truth shall remain hidden.