WESTOVER, W.Va. — Amid national demand for police reform, the debate is playing out on a smaller stage in North Central West Virginia.
Following the release of a body camera video showing a violent confrontation between Andre Howton and two Westover Police officers on New Year’s 2019, Howton’s attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Chief Richard Panico and officers Zachary Fecsko and Aaron Dalton in July of 2020.
The suit claims the officers violated Howton’s civil rights and used excessive force.
In 2019, Chief Panico told local media that according to an internal use-of-force report, the actions of the officers did not violate policy. He is accused in the lawsuit of “publicly condoning” the officers’ behavior by claiming it aligned with policy.
“They had to settle it. They had to either tell the person to go in, close the door. They had to do something. But they way he handled it, I feel it is completely inappropriate. Completely unnecessary. But completely within the norms of police work,” Dr. Jim Nolan said. Nolan is a professor at West Virginia University and a retired police officer. During his time in law enforcement, he has worked as a police lieutenant, sergeant, and as a unit chief for the FBI Crime Analysis, Research and Development Unit.
“Normal” is a word that came up again and again in Nolan’s evaluation of the video.
“This sort of violence is justified. You see, you ask the police if anything is wrong with it and they say ‘no, there’s nothing wrong with it.’ If you ask many police officers ‘Does this go against policy? They’ll say ‘no, it doesn’t go against policy. This follows policy. […] There’s assumption that if things are not right, then maybe someone is breaking policy. However, the truth is that even if police follow policy, they don’t create safety the way we imagine that they do.”
For some people in the small community just outside of Morgantown, the video points to a need for police reform within their city. People packed a regularly scheduled Westover City Council meeting on August 17, which Westover Mayor Dave Johnson began by reading this statement:
“Police officers were involved in an accident -incident, excuse me – which has drawn significant attention from the public and media. Because the facts of this incident are currently the subject of a federal lawsuit, and on the advice of counsel, I will not comment on those facts or on the lawsuit. However, Westover Police Department does not deserve to be attacked with half-truths and innuendo. Our department has a long and continuing record of quality, professional police service. It is inaccurate to say otherwise, and unfair to the dedicated, professional men and women that serve our city in uniform.
Since January 2020, the 13 certified officers of the Westover Police Department had 1,934 citizen contacts by request or otherwise. Of these contacts, we received four complaints of any kind, and no allegations of unlawful or discriminatory behavior. Instead, we have received numerous reports of brave, selfless and helpful behavior by officers. This record shows that there is no pattern of misconduct in the department or by any officer serving in the department.
Our citizens and guests can be confident of responsive, fair and lawful service by our officers now and in the future. In accordance with the city’s general liability and insurance company, the insurance company has appointed Tom Buck from the West Virginia firm of Bailey and Wyant as defense council for the city in this matter.”Westover Mayor Dave Johnson
City Council minutes dating back to January 2019 show this is the first time the Mayor has given a public statement on the incident. Records show the encounter with Howton was first publicly mentioned in a council meeting on September 16, 2019 when a councilman inquired about body camera policies. Chief Richard Panico has not return calls for comment by 12 News.
While the city declined to discuss the lawsuit further, police transparency and body camera policy took center stage at that council meeting when councilman Ralph Mullins proposed an ordinance requiring officers to activate body cameras during every encounter with a citizen, which Chief Panico opposed.
Chief Panico raised concerns that the ordinance effectively backed officers into a corner by requiring all encounters caught on camera to become evidentiary. He said if officers decided to let those with minor infractions go with a warning, they would be breaking the law.
“You can’t arrest everybody,” he said. “And under this policy, you’re making my officer go ‘it’s a crime if I don’t, because I’ll be held accountable and I’ll be fired.”
The current policy in Westover states that “officers shall make every effort to record non-enforcement contacts should they become confrontational, assaultive, or enforcement-oriented.” A list of situations is included, instructing officers to use the camera “when practical.” Chief Panico defended that during the council exchange.
“Up to this point, it was not an issue because we had body cameras operating at the discretion of a police officer, and when he determined he thought he was going to need it. Is that discretion always right? I can’t tell you that.”
The policy in place during the 2019 encounter with Howton also allowed officers to decide when to activate the body camera. Ofc. Aaron Dalton turned his on; Ofc. Zachary Fecsko did not.
Just down the road, the Granville Police Department requires officers to record “all contacts with citizens” with some exceptions, which are listed in its policy. Morgantown Police Department’s policy leaves a bit more room for officer discretion, listing situations where the camera should be activated, but stopping just short of requiring it.
The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office policy is very similar to Morgantown’s. Both include the line “When in doubt, record it.”
Nolan has spent the last twenty years studying police procedure. He says policy is actually the problem.
“Body cameras help you catch someone violating policy. But following policy leads to many same types of aggressive actions and harms.”
Westover City Council members rejected the body camera ordinance with only one “yes” vote and one to abstain. Public comment followed the vote. Some community members made impassioned cases for police reform, while others stood outside because of social distancing rules. Council members were not permitted to interact with the public about their concerns during the meeting.
Both officers involved in the lawsuit are still on the force.
“Unless you can form trusting relationships between the police and the community, you’re not going to have real reform,” said Nolan. “It’s a cultural problem that could be fixed by changing the game.”