Three separate investigations are underway to determine whether State Troopers Derek Walker and Michael Kennedy should be disciplined or possibly charged criminally in connection with the beating of a 16-year-old suspect. Police pursued the boy after he wrecked into a Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department cruiser and kept going before eventually wrecking.
The incident happened November 19, but the public didn’t find out about it until 11 days later, when Governor Jim Justice and the State Police released statements about the incident. Justice said “dashcam video taken at the scene shows the suspect being beaten by two troopers.” The State Police statement is more generic: “It was during the apprehension process, where the response to resistance/aggression actions of the troopers came into question and led to the suspensions.”
Those are different versions of the same incident. The Governor clearly believes the suspect was beaten, while the State Police are simply questioning the troopers’ response. We know the suspect was hospitalized overnight, but was that a result of the accident or being roughed up by the police?
Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Catie Wilkes Delligatti has promised a thorough and transparent investigation. “It will just be a matter of taking statements and reviewing the footage and making sure we’ve fully investigated the facts.” However, she has declined to release the video until after the investigation is complete and the State Police have also refused requests to turn over the video.
That’s a mistake. There is no valid reason to withhold the video until the authorities believe it is appropriate for the public to see it. The fact that it took the State Police eleven days to report the incident to the Governor and other agencies does not instill confidence, and that confidence is vital to the public’s trust of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, state law gives law enforcement broad exemptions to the release of footage. Authorities can easily deny Freedom of Information requests by claiming that the video is part of an ongoing investigation.
It’s difficult to imagine how releasing this video now would harm the investigation. I suspect that if the State Police had been hit with a false claim of police brutality, the agency would be anxious to show the public what really happened.
Two years ago, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the U.S. Justice Department awarded $20 million to police departments across the country to buy body cameras. “As we strive to support local leaders and law enforcement officials in their work to protect their communities, we are mindful that effective public safety requires more than arrests and prosecutions,” Lynch said. “It also requires winning—and keeping—the trust and confidence of the citizens we serve.”
That was true then and it is true today, and the best way to maintain the public’s confidence in the West Virginia State Police is to release the dashcam video without further delay.