WESTOVER, W.Va. – 12 News has been following the situation surrounding the Westover Police Department since a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed earlier this year against the city, the department, its chief at the time and two officers.
This week, the former police chief Richard Panico sat down with 12 News Amanda Mueller for an exclusive interview.
Since that suit, which involved an incident that was caught on an officer’s bodycam, was filed, one of the officers involved has been placed on administrative leave, and the chief at the time, Richard Panico, resigned. There have also been calls from citizens and members of city council to re-evaluate the city’s bodycam policy.
The story has taken another turn this week, as 12 News obtained a copy of a letter, signed by 11 Westover police officers, that calls for the removal of a fellow officer, based on a list of 17 alleged violations by the officer, including threats against other officers and sexual and racial misconduct.
Each officer that signed the letter affirmed they “personally have witnessed at least one or more” acts outlined in the document.
In a statement, Westover Mayor Dave Johnson said the city is cooperating with the Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney regarding an investigation of potential criminal misconduct mentioned in the letter.
In an exclusive interview with 12 News, former chief Richard Panico stated that some of the issues mentioned in the letter led him to step down publically in September, but that he submitted a formal resignation to the mayor and city administration somewhere in the middle of August, before the letter was penned.
“I felt that I wasn’t effective because I couldn’t discipline a police officer that I felt that was basically doing egregious things as a police officer. And, I also felt that there were two police departments operating. There was one working for the administration and one working for me,” Panico told 12 News. “At that point, I knew I couldn’t fix it at my level.”
Documents previously obtained by 12 News revealed the officer in question came from another local police department, where by his own admission, he had been asked to resign. Panico hired the officer in 2013. He explained how the officer had been eligible for hire by the City of Westover.
“He let did let me know that he was, he had resigned under investigation from his previous department,” he said. He said the department did not supply information after a call. “I petitioned the state LEPSIS committee, which is the law enforcement professionals committee. And I said I’d like to have a hearing for him, determine his eligibility, see if he is still certified. And if he is still certified, I’d like to hire him as a probationary officer pending civil service, and they set a date, and he went down to Charleston. And from what I understand, [that department] did not show up,” Panico said. “But the officer did, and the officer received the certification, so he was in good standing.”
The second part of the letter states “Not for sympathy towards [the officer] whose actions have led to its creation, but out of fear for the potential repercussions that the City, The Mayor, The Chief and this Department will have to endure should it arise. In today’s climate, with many groups and individuals targeting the action of Law Enforcement, we understand that those hardships would be vast and severe, should such information be shared. That threat, however, is not enough to allow for the destruction, and threat to life, that we find [the officer] to present while wearing the uniform.”
Panico said the willingness to go public with a tough situation at a politically charged time is what makes his former officers unique. “The citizen, even the drug dealer has rights. We could have kept this quiet. We could have went ‘this went through, and nobody said a word about it.'”
The statement released by Johnson also announced former West Virginia State Trooper Joseph Adams as Westover’s new police chief. After Panico’s departure, John Morgan served as interim police chief.
Other records obtained by 12 News confirm that the officer referenced in the letter is on paid administrative leave as of last Friday.
12 News will have continuing coverage of this developing story.