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Reviewing police conduct: Is citizen panel necessary?

January 06, 2000

They patrol the roads every day, never knowing when a routine traffic stop might turn into a deadly confrontation. They're expected to get tough on crime, except when the perpetrator is a pillar of the community, or a "troubled" teen. They have to make decisions in a split-second, then listen as they're second-guessed for hours in the courtroom.

They're the police, the people who guard the border that separates civilization from lawlessness, and for the money most officers are paid, society expects a great deal from them. Now officers in West Virginia are facing the possibility of another layer of scrutiny, in the form of a citizen review board.

Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, raised that possibility in a Tuesday news release, saying such a panel might be needed to probe claims of brutality by the West Virginia State Police.

Faircloth's action comes in the wake of a Berkeley County man's claims that he was beaten by seven state troopers after a 1997 arrest. State police recently agreed to pay $60,000 to settle an excessive force lawsuit stemming from that arrest.

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But an internal investigation found that the force used was appropriate, and State Police Superintendent Gary Edgell said the settlement was offered because troopers damaged the vehicle which the man was driving. The defendant pled guilty to fleeing police while under the influence and in September drew a 1-to-5 year prison term.

We don't doubt that in the heat of the moment, police sometimes make the wrong decisions. But before we support a citizen review panel, we'd like to know how it would work and what other states' experience with such boards has been. If such groups can probe and prevent physical brutality by officers, we'd probably be in favor.

But if they serve as a forum for those who didn't like being arrested in the first place and want to complain about the arresting officer's bad attitude afterward, that's something the state can probably do without.

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