By Bruce Schreiner
West Virginia’s highest court heard arguments Tuesday from lawyers for state police and a newspaper over whether the state’s lead police agency is required to open its records on allegations of abuse and misconduct by officers.
The arguments boiled down to whether releasing the details would be an invasion of the officers’ privacy.
Sean McGinley, an attorney representing The Charleston Gazette, told the state Supreme Court that the public’s right to know the details about alleged police misconduct outweighs any potential privacy interest.
“This is just part of the American, democratic process of transparency, and that’s why these documents should be made public,” he said during oral arguments that lasted about 40 minutes.
Assistant Attorney General Virginia Grottendieck Lanham countered that privacy considerations should carry more weight because reviews of officers’ on-duty conduct can delve into medical or psychiatric issues that are personal.
In 2010, the Charleston newspaper sued to seek reports from the state police’s Professional Standards section, which handles internal investigations.
The lawsuit was filed after requests for public information from state police and the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety were repeatedly denied.
In May 2012, a circuit judge sided with state police. The Gazette then appealed to the state Supreme Court
In his presentation to the high court, McGinley said there’s a “strong public interest” in holding police officers accountable for on-duty conduct. As a result, he said, the public has a right to know about situations of police misconduct, which police supervisors reviewed the matters internally, whether an officer was reprimanded and what went into the decision.
He said those principles represent “the strong majority view in this country.”
Lanham argued that releasing such records would
undermine self-appraisals by officers who assess police actions in volatile situations. Those internal reviews go up the chain of command and can result in policy reviews that can enhance the safety of officers and the public, she said.
“You want candor,” she said. “You want the employee to be able to say, ‘This is what occurred, this is what didn’t work and we need to change the way we do things.”
She also said the internal reviews are fluid, and the records often change during each step of the process.
After the newspaper’s first request for the records was denied, it made another request that would have allowed state police to redact the names of officers before turning over the records, McGinley said. That request also was turned down.
Lanham said that redacting the names wouldn’t guarantee the privacy of officers. She noted that some police detachments consist of only three officers.
“It would be readily known who those officers are — if one of them is a supervisor, it would be one of the other two.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by year’s end.