CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Questions about happened among three West Virginia police officers and a 16-year-old male could be resolved by a dashcam video, but so far the public hasn’t seen it.
State Police and local authorities have declined to release the video until concluding an investigation of the Nov. 19 altercation.
“No video will be released until investigation is completed,” State Police spokesman Reggie Patterson said Thursday in response to a MetroNews request.
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia says public interest in the the dashcam video means it should be released by choice.
“The dashcam video should be released voluntarily,” stated Loree Stark, legal director for ACLU-WV.
“The officers have been identified, and the benefit to the public outweighs any minimal interest the government has in keeping the footage confidential. If the State Police has concerns about the privacy of the juvenile, there are certainly options available to obscure his identity.”
Was it a beating, or something else?
A statement from Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday first publicly disclosed the incident in Martinsburg.
Justice said “dashcam video taken at the scene shows the suspect being beaten by the two troopers.”
A later, separate statement from the State Police described a 16-year-old crashing into a Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department cruiser, fleeing and then crashing again.
The statement stopped short of describing a beating but also indicated footage that was recorded at the scene was crucial to interpreting what happened.
“It was during the apprehension process, where response to resistance/aggression actions of the troopers came into question and led to the suspensions,” State Police stated.
“The West Virginia State Police has initiated a criminal and internal investigation, upon reviewing an in-car camera video.”
The two troopers, identified as Trooper First Class Derek Walker and Trooper First Class Michael Kennedy, have been suspended without pay.
On Friday, the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department announced that yet another police officer was being suspended, Deputy Austin Ennis, who was at the scene.
The teenager has not been named. His race was identified as white. Officials say he was treated at a local hospital and released.
Questions remain about the extent of the teen’s injuries, what led up to the incident, the disposition of both the teenager and the troopers and what happened in the days that passed before public disclosure.
What happened that night?
Initial news reports from Nov. 20 mention the crash with the cruiser along W.Va. 11 near Spring Mills and a hand injury to the deputy, C.S. Merson, but nothing about an altercation.
The Journal in Martinsburg reported the cruiser was rear-ended while shortly after midnight by a 2008 Pontiac sedan with a homemade tag.
The vehicle then took off, pursued by the deputy and State Police troopers who were in the area. The vehicle went left of center, lost control and exited the road to the left, striking a power pole.
That report says only that the juvenile was removed from the vehicle. “The suspect was treated on scene by officers until transported to Berkeley Medical Center by emergency medical services.”
The deputy role of the deputy who was suspended Friday has not been fully described. C.S. Merson was the deputy whose cruiser was struck. Austin Ennis is the suspended deputy.
Berkeley County Sheriff Curtis Keller told the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., ““He was there at the incident.”
Why was there a delay in telling the public?
A cruiser with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department captured the video, said Brian Abraham, general counsel for Governor Justice. It was not immediately clear whether it was the cruiser in the crash.
The video wasn’t reviewed right away. When someone with the sheriff’s department saw it, the video raised red flags.
“Somebody higher ranking in sheriff’s department reviewed it,” Abraham said. “They became concerned.”
From there, the video was handed off to senior officers at the Martinsburg detachment, then brought to the attention of the State Police main office in Charleston.
That’s where State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill saw it. He decided the Governor’s Office should be looped in and called Abraham about 8 p.m. Wednesday.
“The day the colonel got to see it is the day he called me,” Abraham said. “He decided the governor’s office needed to know about it.”
Abraham said the Governor’s Office would not push for immediate public release of the video. Abraham, a former Logan County prosecutor, worried about jeopardizing a possible criminal case.
“I’m not going to ask the State Police to release it contrary to their policy during the pendency of their investigation,” Abraham said.
“Being a former prosecutor, I think that’s something a prosecutor needs to decide. We don’t want to do anything to compromise a potential prosecution.”
Abraham said he has not viewed the footage.
But he has heard whatever it shows.
“I have not seen it,” he said. “It’s been described to me.”
Who should know what happened?
Investigations are being conducted by the State Police and by Berkeley County authorities, including the prosecutor and sheriff’s department.
The neighboring Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department also has been asked to independently investigate.
The ACLU of West Virginia plans a Freedom of Information Act request about the Martinsburg altercation.
West Virginia code presumes public records are open, but there are significant exceptions.
One is “records of law-enforcement agencies that deal with the detection and investigation of crime and the internal records and notations of such law-enforcement agencies which are maintained for internal use in matters relating to law enforcement.”
The West Virginia Broadcasters Association maintains state law should be updated to address video recorded on body cameras or from police cruisers.
“The recent unfortunate incident in the Eastern Panhandle brings to light the need to refine the state code on the body-worn/dash camera footage,” said Michele Crist, executive director of the association.
“In the years since the code was written, definitions have changed in the area of ‘public information.’ States all across the country are trying to address this issue, balancing the rights of the public to keep informed and the need for privacy.”
The debate over public access to body-worn cameras or dashcams is a national one.
West Virginia is among the majority of states that restrict recordings for privacy reasons or exempt police from public information requests.
Crist said footage like that from the incident in Martinsburg can help the public better understand what happened.
“Body-worn/dash camera footage and other recordings provide an objective, first-hand account of police interactions with citizens,” she said.
“They can be particularly valuable sources of information for members of the press when reporting on matters of public concern.”
When should the video be released?
State Senator John Unger, D-Berkeley, suggested the public shouldn’t rush to judgment in the Martinsburg situation.
“I think the information ought to be forthcoming, whatever’s out there,” Unger said. “But we also want to caution that we don’t want to have a public trial. It has to go through proper procedures, through the law.
“I definitely don’t want a situation where we have a lynch mob or witch hunt over whatever occurred.
Speaking Friday on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” he did not immediately endorse making the dashcam video public. He alluded to the video’s role as evidence.
“We have to do it in a proper way to uphold the law,” Unger said.
Berkeley County Prosecutor Catie Wilkes Delligatti said she just learned of the incident Thursday afternoon.
She was working to obtain the footage for herself and her own investigators to watch.
“I’m just getting a copy of the video,” she said on “Talkline.” “Our intent is to release it as soon as we’ve completed our investigation, which will be next week.”
Wilkes Delligatti declined pushing for the State Police to release the video sooner.
“I’ll leave it to their discretion as to whether they want to release the video of their own accord,” she said.
“In my case, I need the opportunity to view it with the investigator and release our conclusions.”