Scandal at WVSP Academy worse than originally thought

It’s hard to imagine, but the scandal surrounding the West Virginia State Police Academy in Institute has gotten even worse.

The academy made headlines in 2023 when someone sent a letter to several state officials and lawmakers, detailing how cameras had been hidden in the women’s locker room and shower facilities and videos and photos had been taken of female cadets — including minors who attended the Junior Trooper academy. It was later revealed that a letter outlining the incident was sent to Gov. Jim Justice’s office roughly six months earlier, but that letter was never made public.

At that time, the public was reassured that the culprit was an officer who had passed away several years prior and that the thumb drive containing the images had been destroyed. The West Virginia State Police had declined to contact potential victims or take further action.

Now, West Virginia State Police has been hit with 72 lawsuits, some of which name specific defendants, including Joshua Eldridge, Robert Perry, James Lee, Joseph Comer and Harold R. Petry. The majority are related to the hidden cameras (possibly going back as far as 1998), but there are also allegations of sexual and physical assault, and retaliation against male and female WVSP employees for reporting misconduct at the academy and specifically involving Comer. Eldridge is identified as the individual who destroyed the thumb drive that contained the illegally obtained recordings — thereby destroying evidence of a crime.

In perhaps the most shocking twist, Comer — one of the named defendants — was the one who sent the letter to lawmakers alerting them to the hidden cameras. According to the complaint, “The February 2023 letter … was a ruse in a diversion to distract the public and any investigators from uncovering the true source of misconduct … Comer was aware that he was going to be exposed for his sexual exploitation of women at the Training Academy and published the February 2023 letter … to divert attention away from himself.”

The complaints detail a number of awful incidents in which men in positions of power preyed on female cadets, coercing or forcing them into sexual acts or beating them up. (Petry was alleged to have physically assaulted multiple cadets.) Comer’s laptop was apparently a treasure trove of photographic and videographic evidence of the sexual assaults.

Sex-based crimes always tend to be particularly horrifying. Sexual assaults committed by someone in a position of power and trust, even more so. But what happened at the West Virginia State Police Academy is particularly sickening: These women and girls were violated by their peers and mentors, whom they trusted with their education and safety — and they had virtually no recourse. After all, who do you report a crime to when the police are the ones committing it?

Some have argued that police have been under unfair scrutiny the last several years. But 72 lawsuits detailing sexual, physical and mental abuse at a police training facility, of all places, show that officers went far too many years without receiving enough scrutiny.

A handful of “bad apples” traumatized multiple generations of women and deterred them from careers in law enforcement while the assailants’ colleagues either turned a blind eye or helped cover it up. Those few bad apples rotted the whole West Virginia State Police apparatus from the inside and it will take years for the academy to recover the trust it has lost — if it ever can.