National civil rights organization joins lawsuit against Westover Police Department

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced Friday that it was joining a federal lawsuit against the Westover Police Department.

Andre Howton

The suit, against Chief Richard Panico and officers Zachary Fecsko and Aaron Dalton, was filed initially by local lawyers, in July 2020 on behalf of Andre Howton.

Along with Umina Legal in Morgantown, the Washington, D.C. based organization filed an amended complaint in the case that details “issues of race” in the case. The full complaint can be read here.

Below is the news release from the Lawyers’ Committee:

Howton, a 55-year old Black man, was assaulted after law enforcement removed a woman, who was white, from Mr. Howton’s home. After they removed the woman, Fecscko, a white man in his twenties, inexplicably yanked Mr. Howton from his doorway, telling him “get your ass out
here, boy!” With Officer Dalton shouting encouragement, Officer Fecsko then proceeded to pummel Mr. Howton, while Howton lay pinned on the sidewalk, steps from his front door.

“The utter disregard for the constitutional rights of Mr. Howton, who requested assistance from these officers, is outrageous,” said Tianna Mays, senior counsel in the Criminal Justice Project, at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The officers have a history of violence and should be ashamed to call themselves public servants. The failure to terminate them is only eclipsed by the failure to hold the system accountable at large.”

The use of the word “boy” has a history of being used to refer to Black men in a demeaning and insulting manner. Courts have previously found that the use of the word “boy” – as used by Officer Fecscko – can have serious racial implications, similar to the n-word, and may be evidence of racial hostility. “We must recognize the connection of this case to the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation celebrates on Monday. Doctor King shed light the use of the word ‘boy’ as a tool of oppression,” said Arthur Ago, director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.

“The type of behavior of the officers here – calling an older Black man “boy,” pulling him from his home, and then beating him mercilessly – is part of a pattern of unchecked violence against Black communities, motivated by a sense of superiority and a lack of accountability,” said Arusha Gordon, associate director of the James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate, a project of the Lawyers’ Committee. “From the murder of George Floyd, to the beating of Mr. Howton, this racist violence needs to stop. We are proud to join this lawsuit and look forward to fighting hand in hand with the firm of Umina Legal to ensure justice for Mr. Howton.”

Attorneys Beth Lebow and Ryan Umina of Umina Legal stated: “We are extremely pleased that the
Lawyers’ Committee is joining us in the fight for justice on Mr. Howton’s behalf. This case represents
some of the most flagrant constitutional and civil rights violations that the State of West Virginia has ever seen, and the Defendants in this case must be held accountable. Bad actors, such as these Defendants, only make the jobs of the many hard-working, good men and women in law enforcement more difficult. For the safety of our citizens and our communities, we must now do our part to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

The Westover Police Department continues to allow both officers involved in the incident to remain
employed, despite the lawsuit being filed earlier this year and the officers’ previous history of violence.

News released from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

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