Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 24, 2013

Bluefield officials respond to issues about FOI request

BLUEFIELD — City officials in Bluefield responded Sunday to comments that were reported in the state’s media concerning the city’s position on the release of information related to a police review panel that was created as part of the settlement in a 1998 federal civil complaint filed by the late Robert “Robbie” Ellison.

Ellison, who lived in Bluefield, was paralyzed when a city police officer was attempting to place him in custody following an incident at a night club on Jefferson Street in Bluefield. The city of Bluefield’s insurance provider agreed to a $1 million settlement in the civil case in 2000. Ellison died in 2002.

As part of his consent decree, Senior Status U.S. District Judge David A. Faber of the Southern District of West Virginia ordered the city to establish a citizens’ police review panel to review complaints brought against city police officers as part of the settlement.

The case made news again this weekend after Ed Hill, the plaintiff’s attorney in the federal civil complaint, told a Charleston newspaper that he had filed a Freedom of Information request with the city to obtain information about the review panel’s meetings, according to an Associated Press story.

Brian Cochran, Bluefield city attorney, said he received Hill’s request, reviewed the federal court consent decree, and said that he understood that the court wanted information from the meetings to remain confidential.

As a result of the FOI, Cochran said that he asked the court for a ruling as to whether or not the court wanted the information released. He said the hearing was scheduled “last week,” but that Hill asked the court to continue the hearing. “I did not object to his request for a continuance,” Cochran said. Cochran said that the court rescheduled the hearing for August, but the online court calendar does not yet have the new hearing date set.

“The court’s ruling created an advisory review board,” Cochran said. “They can agree or disagree with the rulings of the chief. The State of West Virginia Code established a Civil Service Commission to preside over all disciplinary procedures involving police and fire department personnel,” Cochran said. “An advisory group can’t discipline police or firefighters.”

Cochran said that in recent months, the panel has been meeting. “I think the panel has met three or four times in the past five months,” but with changes in the city administrations during the past 13 years since the consent decree, he could not comment on the frequency of the panel’s meetings.

Bluefield City Manager Jim Ferguson said that since he has been city manager, he has been aware that the panel has been meeting. “I think our police department is on top of things and is doing a good job,” Ferguson said.

After reviewing the article, Cochran said he had a response to Hill’s statement that the city didn’t want police officer’s criticism to be publicly exposed.

“There are privacy issues involved in all employee matters,” Cochran said. “There are very few employment positions in this country that receive as much public scrutiny as police officers do.” He said that city police officers work hard to serve the citizens of Bluefield.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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