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It’s been two decades since the city of Bluefield settled a lawsuit with Robert “Robbie” Lemont Ellison, a then 20-year-old Black man whose neck was broken during an arrest by city police.
In addition to paying Ellison $1 million for his injuries, city leaders promised a federal judge in 2000 that they would establish a panel of citizens to review complaints of police misconduct.
Today, this group remains one of very few bodies for civilian oversight of local police in West Virginia. Yet, through interviews and records requests, it’s apparent that the Bluefield Citizen Review Panel has operated out of compliance and out of the public eye since its founding.
Members haven’t produced yearly reports, as required by a federal consent decree detailing the panel’s rules, and there have been years when attorneys said that the panel didn’t meet.
Moreover, the group’s four mandatory meetings per year have been closed to the public, and records from those meetings are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, making it possible for the panel to avoid public scrutiny by citizens and the press.
City leaders agreed in September to formally add the citizen review panel to city code, subjecting the group to the state’s Open Governmental Proceedings Act, after inquiries from West Virginia Public Broadcasting over the summer.
“We definitely need to improve the operation and transparency of that entity,” said Bluefield City Attorney Colin Cline in August. “I mean, it makes me uncomfortable to have to improve the operation and transparency of a city entity, but, you know, it’s our job.”
Ed Hill, one attorney who represented Ellison in his lawsuit 20 years ago, applauded the move by Bluefield, saying he hopes that the panel will become “a more meaningful entity in the future.”
But for the Ellison family, who said that their youngest brother Robbie died from medical complications a few years after the settlement, justice remains elusive.
“I don’t know, maybe I’ll be six feet under the ground by the time [things] change,” said Lynn Ellison, Robbie’s older sister. “If it never happens with my brother, maybe down the line for someone else, but I still think justice should be served for my brother.”
A Large Family With Deep Roots
Robbie Ellison was the youngest of eight siblings, part of a large family with deep roots in southern West Virginia. His grandfather was a coal miner in nearby Landgraff, McDowell County. His uncle, John, is a 2015 West Virginia Music Hall of Fame inductee, known for penning the classic “Some Kind of Wonderful” and his work with the Soul Brothers Six.
Today, most of the Ellison siblings no longer live in West Virginia, but they return home almost yearly to visit their father, who lives within one of several rows of houses with raised porches, across the train tracks that jut through the town.
“This is the place we love,” said Sam Ellison, one of Robbie’s older brothers. “No matter what happened here, no matter what things we had to deal with growing up, this is our home.”
The Ellisons have experienced a lot of loss in Bluefield. In addition to Robbie’s injuries and eventual death, the siblings said that they lost their mother to cancer in her 40s, and their oldest brother Jimmy was shot and killed in the early ’90s.
This summer, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Ellison siblings sat around a thick white ledge spanning the width of their father’s home. Wearing cloth face masks, they talked about who Robbie was — a lanky kid with glasses like Steve Urkel’s, a character in the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters.”
Robbie Ellison’s family contend that his 2002 death wouldn’t have happened if not for the injuries he suffered in 1998. The three police officers involved in the arrest, two of whom Ellison said beat him, were never criminally charged or disciplined.
“As a police officer, you have to protect yourself,” Sam Ellison said. “But I think that what they did was they went to the extreme with the force that they used on my brother. I know they did because they paralyzed my brother.”
In June, Robbie’s uncle John Ellison released the song “Wake-Up Call (Black Like Me),” which he first wrote as a poem in 2003 about the injustice that his family and Black Americans have seen. In it, John mentions what happened to his nephew Robbie.
“The bottom line is, his neck was broken, his head was bashed in, and from what I saw in pictures of what was done to him, it was very cruel,” John said during an interview in June. “If this police officer’s life was being threatened, that’s a totally different scenario. But one thing is for sure, he [Robbie] wasn’t armed, he posed no threat to this officer. And they basically broke his neck. They killed him.”
Recalling Robbie’s Case
Robbie Ellison named three city officers in his July 1999 complaint against the city of Bluefield. That includes Dennis Dillow, one of two white men accused interchangeably of beating Robbie during an arrest early on the morning of Sept. 17, 1998.
Dillow has been Bluefield’s chief of police for the last eight years.
“When he went to the ground, he had what was called a diver’s accident,” Dillow said in an interview in July. “He hit his head. He landed on his forehead, and it caused the compression in his neck that severed his spinal cord.”
In Robbie’s complaint, attorneys said that Robbie was outside a nightclub around 2:30 in the morning, gathered around a parked car with his older brother and a couple of friends. The three police officers, who were called for a separate incident, approached Robbie’s group and asked them to leave, “using profanity and offensive insults.”
When the group didn’t leave, officers began arresting Robbie’s brother. When Robbie objected, one white officer “pulled Robbie Ellison from the backseat of the car in which he was sitting,” attorneys wrote, and “body-slammed” Robbie against the back of the vehicle.
According to the complaint, witnesses saw either Dillow or the other named white officer, then-Corp. C. Scott Myers, continue to hit Robbie even after he was handcuffed.
“After his neck was broken, Robbie Ellison could not move, and as he lay in the streets with his hands cuffed behind his back, he told the police officers that he could not move and that he was hurt,” Robbie’s attorneys wrote.
The two white officers ignored this, attorneys wrote. They grabbed him “and dragged him face down, with his feet, legs, knees, lower body, and waist all dragging the asphalt street, a distance of approximately 130 feet where they dropped him on the street and left him.”
One of the attorneys who signed Robbie’s July 1999 complaint was Johnnie Cochran, who represented celebrity O.J. Simpson in a California murder trial four years earlier.
Less than two weeks after settling with the city in June 2000, Cochran spoke about Robbie’s case at a church on Charleston’s West Side.
“When you look at what happened to this young man in the prime of his life, it becomes clear it shouldn’t have happened,” Cochran told listeners at Grace Bible Church. “It’s a grave injustice to this young man, who is forever now trapped in his body, paralyzed [by] a person who was sworn to uphold the law.”
Throughout Robbie’s complaint, his attorneys described a “blue line” and “code of silence” that the police department employed to protect the three officers involved in the arrest.
In 2015 under Dillow’s administration, city leaders unanimously agreed to sign a five-year contract for police body cameras. City leaders voted to renew that contract in July.
“I wish we would have had body cameras for that, because then things wouldn’t have been portrayed the way that they were,” Dillow said of the incident with Robbie.
Dillow’s own policy outlines rules for wearing, activating and storing footage from officers’ body cameras.
“I just think that it’s a necessary tool that should be on every officer’s chest, as much as the badge that he wears,” Dillow said. “Because it just, it saves you from frivolous complaints, all the way up to some major event.”
Dillow, Myers, and the third officer in Robbie’s complaint – J.M. Williams, a Black officer who was accused of witnessing violence and not intervening – were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal police investigation shortly after Robbie’s arrest, and a later investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting is still waiting on a response to records requests for these documents, from both the city and the FBI.
‘Not What I Would Have Expected Out Of An Active Citizen Review Panel’
Ed Hill, another of Robbie’s attorneys in 1999, said the Bluefield Citizen Review Panel was Cochran’s idea, along with another promise by the city to recruit more minority applicants to its police department.
“He said, ‘I’ve seen this in too many cities,” Hill recalled of Cochran. “‘Minorities are not appropriately represented in the police department, and there’s racial discrimination.’”
The panel that Hill and Cochran requested involves five members. It must include at least one African American member, and one present or former police officer.
The group has to meet quarterly. Members are allowed to investigate any citizen complaint against an officer, or any closed internal investigation of an officer by their superior.
Today, Hill is the only person outside the city who can view the Bluefield Citizen Review Panel’s work over the last 20 years. Hill was granted permission in 2013 after he sued the city for rejecting a records request he submitted for the panel’s first 13 years of meeting minutes.
Hill requested access to the last seven years of documents over the summer, after an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. He was unable to divulge what members reviewed, but he was able to describe their noncompliance with the federal judge’s order from 20 years ago.
“There had been some activity by the citizen review panel, but there were actually several years that they did nothing,” Hill said. “I think there were three years that there were no records at all. When they did have meetings, it was not what I would have expected out of an active citizen review panel.”
According to the new city ordinance, drafted by city attorney Cline with input from Hill, the five-member board will continue to meet quarterly, and members will submit annual reports on their work to city leaders. Cline will attend all panel meetings, and expects the group to begin meeting once new members are appointed in November.
Stifled By State Law, Little Data
Even before city leaders realized the Bluefield Citizen Review Panel was out of compliance, local advocates for police accountability said the group had little teeth to begin with.
In June, more than a hundred people gathered in Bluefield for a Black Lives Matter rally, one of hundreds of events nationwide after the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota. It was there that protest organizer Charkera Ervin petitioned attendees to want more from the local citizen review panel.
“They get to make suggestions on employment status, they don’t get to actually make decisions,” Ervin said of the group. “There’s actually a law in West Virginia that’s preventing them from being able to actually have the teeth that citizens really want them to have.”
State code outlines procedures for investigating and disciplining police officers, offering more employment protections to police than for other public employees.
Whereas the law stifles the Bluefield panel’s authority to enforce recommendations, local officials elsewhere have cited this code when rejecting other requests for civilian oversight.
In Morgantown, where city leaders have recently begun meeting to discuss what a local citizen review group would look like, West Virginia’s attorney general has already expressed opposition.
Jerry Carr, who presides over the local chapter of the NAACP in Morgantown, said a group for civilian oversight of police could ignite useful conversations around new ways to improve public safety.
“There’s so much lacking in the public’s understanding of what the police actually do,” Carr said in August. “That needs to be repaired, that needs to be brought to the light, and we think a civilian review board is the first step to actually do something like that.”
In Wheeling, West Virginia NAACP President Owens Brown said he’s been trying to establish a citizen review board for three years.
“Police cannot police themselves. That’s just the reality,” Brown said in September. “It seems as though there would be such stringent checks and balances on these individuals, but there’s not, and that’s what’s so insane about this situation.”
Across the state there is little data examining the interactions of local police with marginalized communities.
The same applies to Bluefield, where the police department voluntarily relays a racial breakdown to the FBI for violent and property crimes, yet it keeps no breakdown for traffic stops and other more common interactions that officers have with the public.
What little FBI data is available shows that Bluefield police have disproportionately arrested Black people throughout the last decade, who comprise only a quarter of the city’s population. For instance, roughly 38% percent of people arrested for violent crime in 2019 were Black.
While visiting their father in July and looking over old family photos on his front porch, the Ellisons contemplated what justice would look like 18 years after their brother died, even though most of the siblings now live hundreds of miles away from their hometown.
“If they will go back, and actually investigate this case, and not just sweep it under the rug,” Robbie’s sister, Ann Ellison, answered. “Nobody ever came and talked to us. Nobody ever asked us anything.”
From Florida, their uncle John Ellison agreed.
“It is not like they were dealing with somebody 200 pounds or seven feet tall,” John Ellison said. “He could have been handcuffed and put in a car. To me, it sounds like he was treated that way, simply because he was Black. I can’t see them doing the same thing to a white person.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.