Records should be public in W.Va. case

Law enforcement officers sometimes find themselves accused of misconduct by criminals trying to divert some of the heat away from themselves. Overwhelmingly, investigations determine complaints against police are baseless.

But every barrel contains a few bad apples. Occasionally, law enforcement officers are guilty of abusing their authority – and sometimes of outright criminal behavior. For example, the ex-Mingo County judge accused of trying to frame a man for crimes he did not commit may have made his scheme known to a West Virginia State Police trooper. That matter remains under investigation.

When law enforcement officers are found guilty of wrongdoing, the public is entitled to know about it. But that sometimes does not happen when the West Virginia State Police are involved.

State Police officials refuse to disclose information about internal investigations, including those in which officers are found to be guilty of complaints against them. The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case involving the practice.

A circuit judge already has sided with the State Police in a lawsuit seeking to force the agency to release information on allegations of wrongdoing by officers. Incredibly, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey wrote that “the public interest does not require disclosure” of such information.

Bailey is absolutely, unequivocally wrong.

When law enforcement officers at any level commit misdeeds, the public needs to be informed about it – and about what punishment, if any, is meted out to the offender. How else can the public’s trust in law enforcement be safeguarded?

Again, the overwhelming majority of State Police officers are conscientious, dedicated men and women who do their jobs by the book. If anything, not revealing information about the few miscreants among them is a disservice to most on the force.

Supreme Court justices should rule that State Police internal investigations are public records.