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The Huntington Police Department SWAT raids two homes along Olive Street in Huntington in this 2017 file photo. 

HUNTINGTON — While a fight for racial equality continues across the nation, a black West Virginia man hospitalized after he encountered two white Logan police officers is set to have his day in court locally.

On Tuesday, Frank Morgan Jr., of Logan, was scheduled to be sitting in the plaintiff’s chair as his attorneys present this case to a federal jury in a Charleston civil court case, hoping to prove that Morgan was brutally and unjustly beaten by the officers who later charged him with misdemeanor crimes and claim he was combative and possibly intoxicated at the time of his arrest.

His trial coincides with nationwide protests and riots calling for police reform, which broke out after the recent slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks.

With many local police forces reviewing force policies after Congress and President Donald Trump announced moves to push toward reform, many groups and experts in the field say the efforts are not enough and should be pushed further, with a focus on building better communities.

Giving officers a wider tool belt with options to provide social and other services to the community is a start, Jim Nolan, professor and chairman of the Sociology Department in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University, said.

“When they say defunding policing, I’m saying defund the law enforcement approach,” he said.

Protests seek police reform after black deaths

While a history of police brutality has existed in the United States against people of color, the 2020 killings of Floyd, Taylor and Brooks caused nationwide protests of people seeking police reform.

The most recent bout of protests broke out nationwide May 26 after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died as he was being arrested by a white Minnesota police officer who held him down in a chokehold for nearly nine minutes as three other officers watched.

Taylor, 26, was killed as she slept in her Louisville home after police entered the wrong home with a no-knock warrant and shot her.

Brooks, 27, was shot and killed by Atlanta police outside a Wendy’s restaurant after police accused him of stealing a Taser while they attempted to arrest him. While officers said he was combative, an autopsy showed he was shot in the back.

Since their deaths, more than 2,000 cities in the United States and 60 other countries have seen protests and demonstrations, with at least 200 U.S. cities imposing curfews or bringing in National Guard personnel, as with some protests came rioting or looting by residents and more police violence.

Trial begins for black man hospitalized after encounter with Logan police

Huntington attorney Kerry Nessel said Morgan’s case has striking similarities to George Floyd. Both were suspected of minor crimes, the incidents were filmed by a passerby and responding officers were accused of excessive force.

He said Morgan was unjustly targeted for “WWB” — walking while black — and he has no idea where the officers’ hatred for his client came.

“Morgan, an African American male, middle-aged African American man, was out on the streets in a predominantly white state,” Nessel said during an interview with The Herald-Dispatch. “He was tackled on the street by a few officers, fully restrained and taken to Logan City Hall where other white officers beat him within an inch of his life. I am shocked he’s not dead.”

He was taken into custody along Stratton Street in Logan on April 20, 2018, by Logan police officers Kevin Conley and J.D. Tincher after they were told by a woman he had been masturbating in front of her child.

Morgan has a history of medical conditions, including a hernia, which is why he was wearing sweatpants that day. He had issues keeping his pants pulled up and was working to do so when police arrived on scene, Nessel said.

Nessel said hours later he was admitted to Charleston Area Medical Center General Hospital with the injuries, including a broken arm, kidney injury, jaw injury, and multiple cuts and bruises to his body. He received several staples for a head wound and went through surgery for his broken arm.

Morgan, who is also represented by Huntington attorney Abe Saad, faced misdemeanor charges.

Logan Police Chief P.D. Clemens previously told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that Morgan refused to comply with the officers’ orders and they believed he was on drugs at the time. Clemens said at the time that an officer’s actions were under review. The lawsuit response states the men are still officers with the department.

Tincher claims in a counterclaim that Morgan threatened to kill him, physically attacked him and injured him. The police department states that Morgan deliberately damaged its police cruiser, requiring it to be out of service as it underwent repairs.

The defendants deny any wrongdoing in its lawsuit response.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a criminal complaint signed by the officers and filed in Logan County Magistrate Court said Morgan refused to comply with the officers to get on the ground. They then pepper-sprayed Morgan and said he was high on crystal meth, which he denied.

A man in an apartment building overlooking Stratton Street filmed seven minutes of the encounter.

The video shows Morgan jogging around in his boxers while he attempts to avoid police batons as his girlfriend stands off to the side while talking on the phone. The video shows a Logan County Sheriff’s deputy arriving at the scene and tackling Morgan against a cement wall, against which his head slams. Morgan then falls to the ground and three officers put him in handcuffs as four more arrived at the scene.

His girlfriend stands to the side and says something to an approaching officer, who puts his hands around her throat before pushing her back against the cement building.

Police eventually moved him to a room in City Hall.

Nessel said he believes his client was moved because the officers knew they were being filmed. Clemens told the Gazette-Mail police often brought people to that room after they are arrested for processing.

Nessel said it was there his restrained client was beaten with a metal pipe across his body at least seven times, including in the elbow and head, while his girlfriend was outside the room.

“At this point, Frank is still semi-conscious from the excessive force. He’s drifting in and out, and the last thing he remembers is he thinks he’s about to die,” Nessel said. “He’s telling (the officer), ‘I forgive you.’ He responds by rearing back and kicking Frank in the head, rendering him unconscious.”

Nessel said when Morgan woke up, he heard the officers panicking, thinking he was deceased. Medical services were called and Morgan was transported to two hospitals, where one doctor wrote in his notes that death was a possibility.

Nessel says that note proves excessive force was used under U.S. law.

Federal law says deadly force means “force which a reasonable person would consider likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.”

“I don’t care if he just slaughtered a family of four in broad daylight on the streets of Logan, West Virginia. Once he’s restrained, he poses no threat to anyone,” Nessel said.

Accusations of officers using excessive force in the state are not exclusive to the Logan Police Department, however.

In Charleston, a use-of-force incident was referred to the FBI after a video of Freda Gilmore’s arrest in 2019 showed two officers restraining and kneeing her head to the ground before punching her with a closed fist four times in the skull. She also faced misdemeanor charges.

In August 2019, Charleston City Council approved a $130,000 settlement for two lawsuits filed by Charissa and Elktra Watts, who said three Charleston officers wrongfully identified Charissa’s son, X’Zane Watts, as a suspect in a burglary and pursued him and Fenix Watts, his cousin, with guns drawn before identifying themselves as officers.

The Wattses said the boys suffered physical injuries and mental injuries as a result of the officers’ actions, which included X’Zane being pistol-whipped in his own home.

Gilmore and the Wattses are all black and the officers are white.

In Huntington, a video showing a Huntington police officer using a leg-sweep maneuver on a drunken suspect in 2015 went viral online in 2018 as a lawsuit was filed on the victim’s behalf, which later settled. Another use-of-force lawsuit was settled by the city in recent years after former officer Joshua Nield killed a woman in 2014 after he lifted her up and eventually laid his full weight on her body. The city also settled a sexual assault lawsuit involving Nield and two women.

In January, a federal appeals court partially vacated a finding that had cleared five Martinsburg-based West Virginia police officers on qualified immunity grounds in an excessive force lawsuit filed by the estate of Wayne Jones, a homeless black man shot 22 times in Martinsburg.

Qualified immunity — which protects government officials from lawsuits alleging the official violated a person’s rights — is one of the things those seeking police reform want to end.

Changing the game

Nolan said current policing nationwide is all about playing a game to the best of your ability and to the rules set in place.

Officers are looking for people to arrest and gain status within the department by making arrests. They are trained to be suspicious of strangers and vigilant of danger, and they have an understanding that there are “heroes” and “villains” and the villains need to be locked away.

“I think very few police officers would try to really harm someone. They think what they are doing is the right thing,” he said. “They are applying the logic of the game instead of thinking, ‘I wonder if this is the right thing to do?’”

The protests have been a great way to highlight the issue, Nolan said, but they won’t be enough for change.

“You can’t make football a less violent game by telling people it’s a violent game,” he said. “You’ve got to change it. And nothing I’ve seen from a government official actually changes what the people do.”

Trump and Congress pushed measures recently to address police reform with various ideas including a database to track officers’ use of force, while encouraging better policies and co-responder programs in which social workers would join police when they respond to nonviolent calls involving mental health, homeless or drug dependency issues.

While Huntington currently hosts a Quick Response Team, it works with the Cabell County EMS team and has the goal of responding to overdose victims within a couple of days of the event. It does not typically go on calls as they happen.

The Huntington Police Department has said it is reviewing its policies on use of force. Department spokesmen say their practices are up to standard, although their written policies might need to be changed to reflect that. The department in recent years has moved more toward community policing by keeping officers in the same neighborhoods with a goal of more accountability.

Local, federal actions not enough, groups say

Aaron Llewellyn, of the On The Streets Committee, a Huntington-based grassroots organization dedicated to protecting marginalized people, called for civilian oversight of the police instead of internal investigations.

“You just need to look at the records to see that there are evident racial inequities; people of color are far more likely to experience HPD use of force during an interaction; people of color are far more likely to be incarcerated in our corrections system,” Llewellyn said. “Because of racial economic inequalities, people of color are also more likely to be targeted for crimes of poverty, as well.”

Scott Hayes, also of OTSC, said Huntington could use the national movement to be proactive by adopting models toward racial, social and economic justice.

Nolan said whether they know it or not, most people have some time of bias against those of other races. He pointed to a 2009 traffic stop study done in West Virginia that showed on a statewide level, black and Hispanic drivers were disproportionately likely to be searched and issued a citation.

“There’s definitely discrimination on how laws are being enforced. You can change training. Most people are aware of it, but I think a lot of it goes back to the law enforcement game they’re playing,” Nolan said.

Traditionally, police are recognized and awarded based on how they enforce the law, not by how they improve community safety or trust in police, he said.

The government could start that change by giving officers a wider tool belt and more accountability for their actions, Nolan said.

Policing toward a better community

Last week, the Moundsville Police Department in West Virginia received backlash after it unveiled a tactical resource vehicle it obtained from the military as part of a federal government program. The 2019 Cougar mine resistance ambush protection vehicle could be used in a hostage situation or as a rescue vehicle, police said.

Social media was abuzz with people decrying the department’s acceptance of the vehicle, calling the small town — which has a population of about 8,400 and touts a low violent crime rate yearly — oblivious to the national cries for police reform.

Demilitarizing local police departments and moving toward a more social approach would build trust, Nolan said. Those are strategies that focus on building ties and working closely with members of the community to gain public trust and makes officers more accountable for their actions.

It calls for strengthening of neighborhoods, with police officers being assigned to communities and held accountable for making a place safer.

“What makes a place safer is the bonds in a neighborhood, not only with police, but with others,” he said. “It would reduce violence and it would make people want to call the police and call for the proper help they need, rather than the police coming to the door and them running from them and assaulting them.”

The more police connect with their community and its members, the better decisions he or she will make, he said.

As for the practice of positional asphyxia, Nolan said the police academy taught him how to get out of them, not how to administer them. At what point police officers picked it up, he doesn’t know. With national outcry against the move with Floyd’s death, he doesn’t believe any department will be utilizing it anymore.

Nessel said he believes 99% of officers across the country are respectful and correctly do their job, but the 1% is where the issue lies. Nessel quoted federal magistrate judge Mary E. Stanley, stating that “instead of cleaning up, these entities are covering up.”

The academy would be a start, Nolan said.

Nolan said he has heard from small-town police chiefs in West Virginia who said once new officers get back from the academy, they have to retrain them from the military-esque training they received to a more small-town police model.

He is interested in how a new police academy program starting at Fairmont State University will differ from that of the West Virginia Police Academy and if it will take a more community approach.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I also don’t know what the curriculum is,” he said. “If the people who are teaching there are thinking about police reform … and educating officers in an educational setting more than a boot camp setting, then it could do some good. But just because it’s at a different place doesn’t mean it’s better.”

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.