W.Va. AG: City Police Reforms Must Not Run Afoul of State Code

CHARLESTON, WV (WOAY) — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey urged the Morgantown City Council to reconsider moves aimed at reforming local police operations due to concern the efforts may run afoul of state law.

“Improving officer training and preventing the unwarranted use of deadly force are worthy goals that I share,” Attorney General Morrisey wrote. “However, the Office of the Attorney General is of the opinion that the Morgantown City Council does not have the legal authority to enact any municipal ordinance purporting to conduct investigations of complaints relating to members of the Morgantown Police Department, as any such ordinance would conflict with the provisions of W.Va. Code.”

The Attorney General cites state precedent in writing the state Supreme Court of Appeals has repeatedly held that a municipality has only the powers granted to it by the Legislature and that state code prevails whenever a city ordinance or resolution is inconsistent or in conflict with state law.

Specifically, the Attorney General writes that state law gives exclusive authority to the Policemen’s Civil Service Commission of each city to investigate allegations that could lead to punitive actions against a paid police officer. State law also prohibits cities from appointing, promoting, reinstating, removing, discharging, suspending or reducing in rank any member of their paid police departments through any manner other than their individual Policemen’s Civil Service Commission.

The Attorney General cites prior, albeit failed, legislative efforts as demonstrating the Legislature also understood that cities lack the legal authority to create any separate police or law enforcement review boards.

Notwithstanding the Morgantown City Council’s goals, the Attorney General also believes potential hiring quotas and several other aspects of its plan would conflict with various provisions of state code, as well as the state and federal constitutions.

The letter alludes to other potential problems, but closes with encouragement for Morgantown City Council to engage and communicate closely with law enforcement as it strives to improve outcomes when city police officers encounter members of the public. The Attorney General believes the officers’ input and personal experiences may provide the Council with valuable insight to help accomplish its goals.

Read a copy of the Attorney General’s letter at https://bit.ly/2Egp1W0.

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