WESTOVER, W.Va. – 12 News has obtained video that shows the arrest at the center of a second civil rights lawsuit against Westover police officers.
The location on Dunkard Avenue is a familiar one: months before and only a property line away, Officer Aaron Dalton and Officer Zachary Fecsko arrested Andre Howton on January 1, 2019, during a domestic call. The violent encounter sparked a lawsuit against the officers and its former police chief Richard Panico, thrusting this small West Virginia town into the national spotlight.
More than eight months later, Dalton and Officer Justice Carver arrested William Cox.
Attorneys with Bailey Glasser and Shaffer Madia Law filed the latest suit in January 2021 in U.S. District Court on behalf of William Cox, against the City of Westover and Westover Police officers Aaron Dalton and Justice Carver. The suit claims the officers falsely arrested Cox and used excessive force against him.
“Most police officers in our state are tremendous, hard-working, great people. And that’s not what this lawsuit is about,” Morgantown Bailey Glasser partner Travis Prince told 12 News. “The harsh reality is, there are individuals who do not deserve to wear the blue, and to carry a badge. And that is what we have in this case.”
12 News obtained both surveillance video of the arrest captured by a local business and reports filed by both officers on the day of Cox’s arrest.
On the morning of August 25, 2019, Cox was waiting for a bus at the Mountain Line stop on Dunkard Avenue, when Dalton and Carver drove by in a Westover Police cruiser. As the officers drove by, Cox began recording them with his cell phone. The officers’ accounts say they noticed Cox recording them and turned around to speak with him. That is where the similarities in the suit and the officer accounts end.
In his report, Carver states, “I advised Lt. Dalton I thought the male may need assistance and asked if he [sp] we could check on him to make sure he didn’t need anything.” The case complaint states that the officers questioned Cox as to why he was recording them, to which he responded it was “his right to do so” and that Cox told the officers he was “relieved that they had body cameras and if necessary, he would submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the video footage,” to which Dalton replied that Cox was “too stupid to know what FOIA means,” the suit alleges.
The officers’ reports paint Cox as the aggressor, stating he was shouting “I want your name and badge numbers” while shouting at Dalton to “turn your body camera on.” They say a witness familiar with Dalton walked up to the cruiser and engaged in conversation — and Cox re-approached their vehicle. The reports state Cox repeatedly used profanity and refused to leave the area before Carver advised him to “put his hands behind his back he was being placed under arrest.”
Whatever the exchange between William Cox and the officers, Prince emphasized that it doesn’t justify violence.
“William Cox did nothing illegal,” he said. “Whether it be using a cell phone or speaking to a police officer […] there’s no justification.”
Carver can be seen on the video exiting the passenger side vehicle to approach Cox. In the following melee, Prince says Carver initiated contact.
“There is an allegation that Mr. Cox was an aggressor, but clearly in the surveillance footage, he was not,” he said. “One officer, that we believe to be Officer Carver, exits the passenger side vehicle and immediately raise his fist and takes a swing.”
The officer reports read much differently: “The male then shoved me in the chest area and took an aggressive stance as if he was going to fight me. I proceed towards the male and which he then struck me in the face with a closed fist. I then grabbed the male and struck him in the face with a closed fist in order to defend myself.”
In the video, Dalton exits the vehicle and tackles both to the ground.
The suit alleges that rather than de-escalating the situation, “Officer Dalton and Officer Carver immediately exited the police cruiser and violently attacked Mr. Cox, subjecting him to a merciless onslaught of punches, kicks, and pepper spray when he was defenseless, and posing no threats to the Defendant Officers.”
As a former law enforcement officer, WVU sociology professor James Nolan stated that the situation appears, at the very least, questionable.
“For three minutes, it just doesn’t seem like he was perceived as a threat […] and then suddenly erupted as it did. That’s strange in my mind.”
There is no further mention by either officer of William Cox’s cellphone, which is visible in the video. 12 News has not been able to find any mention of the phone in records or reports. Prince detailed that attorneys on the case have never seen it.
“He was never returned his cell phone, and we do not know, right now, the status of the cellphone,” he said. “There is an evidence collection policy at the City of Westover that police officers must abide by, and it appears they did not. In this case, for Mr. Cox, either the evidence was collected and destroyed, being his cellphone, or it was left on the street.”
Despite the reportedly heated exchange about body cameras, neither officer mentions activating their body cameras in their report, and no body camera footage of the arrest ever surfaced.
Nolan said for both the public and officers’ safety, the decision not to use the body cameras is concerning, particularly after one officer was already involved in a lawsuit.
“It’s somewhat reckless to keep people on the street […] and give them the discretion to have their videos on or not.”
This is the second time Westover police officer Aaron Dalton has been named as a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit while working for Westover. He was also named in a lawsuit before he was asked to resign from Fairmont Police Department in 2013.
Prince stated that the lawsuit is about failure in the City of Westover.
“The failure of the City of Westover to hire appropriately qualified officers, a failure in the City of Westover to train police officers on the department policies, and a failure to discipline officers who fail to adhere to the policies of the department.”
In a world now shifting its focus towards police brutality issues, Nolan seems to agree.
“Most problems in policing today are not this kind of thing,” he said. “It seems like this is the exception, one of the small exceptions to the problem… is related to this officer and the departmental policies that keep him on the street.”
Aaron Dalton is currently on paid administrative leave with the department, pending an investigation.