Sustained Outrage

Policing the police, part 3

State Police patchSome of the people who commented on my last post think that the Gazette unfairly focuses on the West Virginia State Police and gives other agencies a free pass. I’m not sure that Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster and Kanawha County Chief Deputy Johnny Rutherford would agree, because I have had conversations a lot like the one I described with both of them on more than one occasion.

Both of those departments investigate allegations of officer misconduct internally. Well, the people who conducted the Charleston Police Department’s double-dipping probe were two senior officers, Capt. Kevin Perdue and Capt. Lex Williamson, and a retired CPD captain, John Tabaretti. (The CPD also has its own Professional Standards unit.)

The CPD objected vigorously — to the point of taking the matter to the state Supreme Court — when the Gazette requested time sheet records of its officers. The CPD’s position seemed to be, Trust us, we know what we’re doing. We don’t need the Gazette looking over our shoulder. Everyone should automatically have faith in the results of our investigation of our own officers. (In a unanimous opinion, the justices re-affirmed that payroll records are public and therefore subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.)

As far as reporting on allegations against the four troopers, it is worth noting that the media — the Gazette included — reports on allegations against suspects in criminal matters before they have been proven in a court of law all the time. (And with the blessing of law enforcement, who sometimes tell us when they will be taking certain suspects to their arraignments. Or do you think we just happen to have cameras at the courthouse every time there’s a “perp walk”?)

There’s a difference between making a complaint and filing a lawsuit. To me, it’s analogous to the difference between someone walking into a police station and saying, “My neighbor stole my lawnmower” and an officer filing a criminal complaint actually charging the neighbor with theft.

The former is made in private, and only a few people know about it while someone looks into the claim to see if it has any merit and requires further action. In the latter case, the officer stands up in a court of law and swears that, as the result of an investigation and to the best of his or her knowledge, probable cause exists to believe a crime was committed. To put it another way: I believe I can prove the defendant committed this crime.

In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff (in this case, Roger A. Wolfe), is standing up in a court of law and saying: I believe the defendants did something wrong to me, and I can prove it. This is a lot different from filing an internal complaint asking an agency to look into something.

So,  it’s a tough sell arguing that the troopers are not getting the same “due process” as criminals. The same presumption of innocence holds as true for them as it does for criminal suspects.

As for the troopers’ privacy, the court can take steps to protect that, such as placing their personnel files under seal. Just because parties are required to disclose information to the other side in litigation does not mean that it automatically becomes public. Judges can review documents before they decide whether the public is allowed to see them.

That being said, there is often a strong presumption that court filings should remain open to public scrutiny unless the parties can provide a compelling reason otherwise.

Finally, a few words on Wolfe’s alleged drunken driving.

Someone usually brings this up every time I write about the incident involving Wolfe. And it’s true, he was arrested and charged with DUI after Trooper Paul A. Green observed him driving erratically in downtown Charleston, according to the criminal complaint Green filed in Kanawha Magistrate Court.

But you know what? Wolfe was never convicted. The Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney’s office failed to prosecute Wolfe within the year time limit given to misdemeanors. They also never turned over their evidence against him, despite multiple written requests from his lawyer, in an apparent violation of the state’s rules of criminal procedure. (To be fair to Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants, all this happened under the watch of his predecessor, Steve Revercomb.)

The state tried to get the case against Wolfe reinstated, saying that Magistrate Carol Fouty was to blame for not putting the case on her docket in a timely manner. But Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene C. Berger ruled in August 2008 that Wolfe had a right to a speedy trial, which in magistrate court means within a year, and the state missed its window.

So, in the eyes of the law, Wolfe is completely innocent, because the state did not avail itself of its responsibility to prove otherwise.

But in terms of his claims that he was beaten so badly while in State Police custody that he was hospitalized because his doctor feared for his survival, that doesn’t even matter.

At all.

I hope we can all agree that no matter what crime someone is accused of committing, the suspect should not be mistreated while in custody. At least that’s how I read the 4th Amendment.