UPDATED: Mon-Preston FOP members plan to challenge civilian review ordinance if passed

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Members of the Mon-Preston FOP have retained Wheeling attorney Teresa Toriseva, of Toriseva Law to represent them regarding the proposed effort to establish a citizens police review commission.

Consistent with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Toriseva says the proposed ordinance violates state law and encroaches on the duties of the existing police civil service commission.

In September of 2020, Morrisey sent a letter to Morgantown elected leaders saying, “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,” Morrisey said,” As any such ordinance would conflict with the provisions of W.Va. Code.”

Specifically, Chapter 8, article 14 provides exclusive methods for the appointment, promotion, discipline and termination of officers as well as the hearing process. West Virginia Code governs employment guidelines of public safety officers in lieu of allowing them to unionize.

“We can see if there’s a way we can accommodate the requests and changes that are being made,” Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty said,” Or to see whether or not proposed changes might nullify the propose of the ordinance.”

The letter says in part, “In short, the provisions of West Virginia code that establish a police civil service commission also make clear that such provisions are the exclusive remedy for all matters touched upon by the act,” Toriseva wrote. “ As such, please consider this letter a notice that if City Council passes this ordinance as written, the members of the Mon-Preston FOP, which constitute nearly all members of the Morgantown Police Department, will challenge its enforcement immediately by way of a writ of prohibition in circuit court and if necessary, to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.”

Fetty urged the public to comment on the ordinance when it was released during the January 26 committee of the whole meeting, and repeated that call during a regular meeting Tuesday.

“I welcome communications from everyone, including the Fraternal Order of police, Fetty said,” It is disappointing to have provided a very transparent and open process and receive so little feedback from the Fraternal Order of Police or MPD.”

Over the 20-plus meetings held since July, members of the committee have operated under the premise the ordinance would be within the law as long as the board could only make recommendations to the police chief, not directives.

Toriseva addressed the claim that the proposed board would be legal because it would have no authority to discipline or terminate officers in the letter by saying:

“Such an argument resonates hollow as the mere existence of such a Board empowered with investigative and subpoena powers is in direct conflict with (state code),” Toriseva writes. “Further, if this Board has no real power, what is the purpose of its existence?”

Fetty said the ordinance will be sent to Attorney General Morrisey for review before the next steps are taken.

“We’re going to be taking into consideration all of the comments that are made then the special committee will meet again a few weeks from now,” Fetty said,” Once we’ve had a chance to hear from the Attorney General’s office and get as much communication as we need.”

ACLU Community Outreach Director Mollie Kennedy, expressed disappointment in the lack of input from police and the FOP during the meetings and threat of legal action as the process wraps up.

“It’s a shame they are working so hard to stifle some of the most marginalized voices in this community,” Kennedy said,” When those voices are simply asking for more information, more transparency and a chance for the public to express concerns and ideas to the police.”

Kennedy says trust between the police department and the community is a real issue.

“Whether an individual police officer or this department contributed to that or whether it came from experiences elsewhere,” Kennedy said said,” That lack of trust is a problem police in Morgantown have to contend with.”