By MATTHEW BURDETTE
ELKINS, W.Va. — A memorandum by former Elkins Police Chief Craig Cross that referred to drug dealers as “cockroaches” and urged officers to use force and intimidation tactics has not only divided the community, but it also has raised legal questions as to the status of cases moving through the court system.
Dozens of area residents came out in support of Cross Thursday on social media sites and in discussion throughout the community.
Despite the widespread backing, though, the legal ramifications of Cross’ memo have not fully materialized.
Joseph Cohen, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the memo was a clear violation of the Fourth and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures of property and protects against arbitrary arrest. The Fifth amendment guarantees the right to a grand jury, forbids double jeopardy and protects against self-incrimination, as well as requiring due process of law.
“The memo is absolutely shocking,” Cohen said. “It shows a police chief that totally disregards any concern for due process. It shows a department that is completely unconcerned with the constitutional limitations on searches and seizures. It shows a culture of dehumanizing people based on where they live or how they dress.”
“To the Elkins Police Department, suspects are not human. They are cockroaches,” Cohen added. “The chief encouraged the use of violence to intimidate and harass people. Why would anyone in Elkins have faith in the criminal justice system? The police department clearly was not an impartial arbiter of the law.”
In the memo, Cross — who declined comment for this report — wrote, in part, “If you see any suspected cockroach walking around OUR town with a big a– knife or backpack or hoodie on with the hood up I want them stopped and identified, you know what I want them harassed if you know they are a cockroach. … I want people stopped and checked out! PUT THE FEAR BACK INTO THESE COCKROACHES! Stomp cockroach a– if needed! YOUR (sic) COPS AND AS LONG AS YOU WEAR THAT PATCH ON YOUR SHOULDER THIS IS YOUR TOWN! WE WILL EITHER MAKE PEOPLE RESPECT US OR FEAR US, PREFERRABLY BOTH!!!!”
By issuing the memo, Cohen said Cross has put the city and county legal system in peril.
“The chief not only would seem to have encouraged the violations of (the) rights of citizens, repeatedly, he also jeopardized any prosecutions that were handled under his leadership by flaunting the requirements of the Constitution,” the state ACLU chief said.
West Virginia University professor of sociology Dr. Jim Nolan echoed Cohen’s sentiment that the memo caused great damage to the Elkins Police Department and to the citizens EPD is charged to protect.
“This sort of sentiment, in the letter, is an element of dehumanizing people. Once dehumanized, it is easy to commit atrocities,” Nolan said. “This is what happens in terms of hate crimes. If you see others as non-human, it is easier to commit horrible and violent acts. Viewing them as cockroaches is not a good thing. It is a very disturbing memo in my mind.”
Nolan, whose focus is on crime and social control, with an emphasis on neighborhood dynamics and police procedures, said the memo could serve as the proverbial slippery slope to a potential disaster.
“In terms of the legal aspects, someone wearing a hoodie, it’s like the Trayvon Martin case,” Nolan said. “He had a hoodie on and George Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious, a struggle ensued and an unarmed Martin ends up dead. The reason he was stopped was probably because he looked like a cockroach with his hoodie up.”
The WVU professor said, in community law enforcement, a deft hand is required and that police departments are not just there to lock up the bad guys.
“Since 2014, police are looking for new ways of building trust and legitimacy,”Nolan said. “(Police) saying that they want them to fear us is extremely counterproductive. Trust, legitimacy, cohesiveness and a willingness to intervene, you don’t build that by fear.”
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