Powell reviews 2021 arrest with city’s police review board

MORGANTOWN — On the surface, the interaction checked all the boxes for the kind of thing that catches fire. 

It was a little after 9 p.m. on Aug. 30, 2021.   

The Morgantown Police Department had been summoned to the downtown Sheetz to trespass three individuals from the property after an hour of ignored requests. 

Then things took a turn. 

Before all was said and done, there would be a small crowd of cops on the scene and an increasingly agitated group of bystanders recording as officers took a Black woman to the ground in an effort to get her in handcuffs. 

That arrest was the backdrop for a 90-mintue meeting Thursday between Morgantown Police Chief Eric Powell and members of the Morgantown Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board.   

Board Chair Richard Burks explained that after reviewing everything from the 911 dispatch logs to arrest reports and body-worn camera footage, the board wanted to use the arrest as a case study and an opportunity to hear from Powell about the specifics of this case, the MPD and policing in general. 

The interaction was conversational in tone. Powell did most of the speaking and his remarks were often candid.  

For example, in addressing the arrest cited above, the chief said his eyes were immediately drawn to the number of officers at the scene. 

“When I watched what happened, I agree to the extent that there was probably too many people there, but I can tell you it’s something that I’m aware of and have been aware of even prior to this incident,” Powell said. “I’m trying to take care of it. It’s a culture thing. It’s a thing you’ve got to work on constantly and you’ve got to remind people of constantly.” 

Powell also conceded that while his department does teach de-escalation techniques, some officers are naturally better at it and some officers need time and experience to develop those skills. 

Board member Megan Gandy, a licensed social worker, called the situation “a straight-up power struggle,” and said she believes the confrontation ramped up because opportunities to deescalate weren’t recognized by officers. 

“For us, you have to come to a point where you say, ‘OK, this practice of me trying to deescalate the situation, it ain’t working no more,” Powell said. “There’s also different levels of competency with things like de-escalation. Not everybody is going to be able to recognize the same avenues that you’re recognizing as a trained social worker. That’s something you’ve got to work on.” 

Ultimately, Powell pushed back on suggestions that race was a motivating factor for officers, as was suggested at the scene and after the fact. 

Board member Bryan Church explained he’s racked up a lot of time watching body-cam footage as both a public defender and a prosecutor. He also noted he has no problem going after officers when warranted. 

“I did not have any issue watching that. I thought the officer that handled it was very professional and I think he gave her every opportunity. I think I recall him essentially begging her not to make him arrest her,” Church said. “I tend to agree with you. What can you do? At some point, you can only ask someone to leave private property so many times before you have to do something.” 

In the end, Powell concluded, the buck stops with him.  

“If my officers do wrong. If my officers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, trust me, we’re going to deal with it. It’s not something I take lightly,” he said. 

“I understand that people don’t understand how police operate. I get it. I encouraged this [board] because I want people to understand how we operate. But we’re not in the business of oppressing people, which is so often what people seem to think. We’re in the business of helping people and making sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing law-wise.”