I wrote this to the Lincoln Journal. It is in The News from Sam’s Branch: A Memoir and History in Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor, which I hope to publish some day.
Several years ago I was “sucker punched” after a Lincoln County Board of Education meeting. A few years later the man who threw the punch was sentenced to forty years in prison for murdering a teen-age boy. When he blindsided me, he was a big cog in the Democratic Party machine in Lincoln County and he was the director of transportation for the board of education. His brother in law was the superintendent of schools. Among other things, my wife and I had complained at the board meeting that he got a $2,000 raise and teachers got nothing. After the assault a board member called the State Police. My wife and I told the state policeman that we wanted to file a complaint against my attacker. When we got to the Hamlin state police headquarters he kept delaying us about filing the complaint. We told him more than once that we wanted to file a complaint. He shuffled papers and said, “In due time”. Suddenly a pickup truck roared into the area in front of the door and two state policemen with assault rifles jumped out of the truck. “Let’s get out of here” I said to my wife and headed for the door. The state policeman we had been talking to ran from behind his desk, grabbed me from behind, threw me into a chair. He held me with one hand and doubled up his fist in my already bloodied face. He turned to the policeman standing in the door with the assault rifle and said, “He won’t listen to anybody”.
Up to that point we had had no confrontation with the policeman. We had discussed nothing that could lead him to believe I wouldn’t listen. We had come to the state police headquarters of our own free will to file a complaint of assault and battery.My face was covered with blood. Lucky for us the two armed state policemen needed help with a hostage-taking situation in another part of the county. The police had to leave and as you can imagine we got out of there, too. The policeman who had just had his fist in my face called to us to, “Come back tomorrow and file that complaint”. We looked at him in disbelief.
We talked to a lawyer in Hamlin about the situation. He told us the best thing we could do for the people of Lincoln County would be to get some publicity on the brutality of the state police. “Every time I have a teen-age client who has been arrested by the state police, either the teenager or an adult male relative has been beaten.” An investigation was conducted into police brutality in Lincoln County. The investigator was another state policeman from northern West Virginia. He was driven to our house by Sgt. Galford, the same state cop who assaulted me at the Hamlin headquarters. Sgt. Galford sat in front of our house with his cruiser motor running while we were being interviewed inside. At one point the investigating officer defended the actions of the state policeman who assaulted me. I literally became speechless. When I recovered I told him that he could depend on one thing. I would never call the state police again. We were wasting our breath with this guy. Sgt. Galford was not punished as a result of the “impartial, in-house investigation” Except for certain politicians, local citizens have no control over the state police. Local citizens do have some control over the Sheriff and deputies. The Sheriff is elected and if he or she or the deputies get too rough on too many people they can be thrown out of office by the voters. Sometimes it just takes an informal complaint to the Sheriff to rein in an abusive deputy. There is no such threat controlling the state police. When they get out of line and someone protests, they investigate themselves and they do not have to answer to the voters.
State police officials are opposed to a civilian review board. If the recent brutality by state policemen in McDowell County had not been recorded in a 911 call there is little doubt, based on my experience, that the in-house investigation would have been another white-wash.
The state police are working for the people. The people should have some way to control abusive behavior. Everyone would benefit from a civilian review board. The good cops would not be tainted by a few renegades. They would have to answer to the people not their fellow employees. It may be just human nature for fellow policemen to want to take it easy on their comrades in arms. Reviews of complaints should always be done by independent agencies. Very few people trust an “in-house investigation”.