By David Hedges, Publisher|
A trooper at the State Police detachment in Spencer may have been the subject of more investigations for use of excessive force than any other trooper in West Virginia in recent years, according to an
investigation by the state's largest newspaper.
In each case, other members of the State Police cleared the officer of any wrongdoing after internal investigations. Nathan Stepp has been the subject of 13 investigations regarding alleged use of force since 2015, according to a two-part series published in the Charleston
Gazette-Mail Saturday and Sunday.
However. State Police said they did not keep any records for one of those years, 2017, even though the law requires them to do so.
State Police have an early identification system (EIS) that identifies officers reported to have used force three times or have two complaints filed against them within 90 days.
State Police supervisors review the incidents to determine whether any increased supervision or additional training is required.
During that period, the State Police Internal Review Board looked at 103 alleged instances of excessive use of force. Not one of the cases resulted in any additional supervision or training.
During the same period, State Police paid over $3 million in
settlements, plus $400,000 in legal fees, to resolve suits against troopers, with more than two dozen cases still pending, according to the newspaper's investigation by staff writer Jake Zuckerman.
Stepp has also been named in three lawsuits filed in federal court, all of which are pending.
"These investigations are just perfunctory," said Russell Williams, a Charleston lawyer who filed two of three suits against Stepp.
"There were over a hundred complaints, and not one case where someone was disciplined," Williams said. "I think the numbers speak for themselves."
One of those lawsuits involved the shooting death of Bernard Dale Cottrell on W.Va. 14 near Billings in September 2016.
Stepp was in his cruiser and two other officers in another car when Stepp allegedly passed the other officers and ran his cruiser into Cottrell's vehicle to block him.
Stepp and two other officers alleged, fired 29 shots into the 65-year-old schizophrenic man's car, including 17 by Stepp.
The lawsuit says Stepp first said he saw Cottrell holding a shotgun in the front seat of his vehicle.
Cottrell never fired his weapon during the incident, the suit alleges, and forensic testing found no traces of gunshot residue on his hands. His driver's side window was closed, according to dashcam video that came to a halt after the cars collided.
Stepp's attorney in that case, Michael D. Mullins of Charleston, said Stepp currently was deployed overseas with the National Guard, and he did not have his client's permission to speak on his behalf.
The suit claims that military leave is "what the West Virginia State Police does to shield and/or hide Troopers who are being investigated, sued and/or prosecuted for committing unlawful acts."
Williams said the lawsuits have been put on hold until Stepp returns from military duty.
Stepp was also sued by a Calhoun County man pulled over a traffic stop in 2017 who ended up being air-lifted to a Charleston hospital with an acute head injury, lacerations to the face and scalp that required nine staples, cranial hematomas, a possible fractured wrist and possible lung contusion.
Josh Settle, 20 at the time of the incident, was found guilty in Calhoun Circuit Court of fleeing from an officer, battery on an
officer and several related charges and sentenced to 5-to-10 years. His attorneys said they would appeal.
Stepp is one of several officers named in a suit filed by former Kanawha prosecutor Mark Plants.
In that complaint, Brad Proctor alleges four officers, including Stepp, forced their way into his home in January 2018 and kicked, punched and beat him, even though he did not attempt to resist or flee.
Proctor alleges after he was beaten the officers threw him into the snow outside and left him in the cold for an hour with no shirt.
Efforts to reach Charleston attorney Wendy Greve, who represents the defendants, were unsuccessful. A spokesman said she was out of the office and a message left for her was not returned
Among the incidents that led to investigations against Stepp for possible use of excessive force was one in 2015 when Stepp mistakenly thought a Spencer man, Josh Fisher, was on home confinement when Stepp found him and his brother, Justin, at the Go-Mart in Elkview. Justin Fisher told the Gazette-Mail he was "chokeslammed" by Stepp, while Josh Fisher ended up with a fractured elbow.
Stepp told investigators he was applying pressure to Josh Fisher's elbow while trying to free Fisher's arm to handcuff him.
The next year, 67-year-old Clifton Sommer was handcuffed when he fell down the steps and hit his head on a concrete slab. Stepp told
investigators the man tripped.
Williams said the State Police who investigated never asked Stepp about Sommer's claims Stepp pushed him down the steps.
Any statements from witnesses that run counter to the officers' ac-count are discarded," Williams said. "Whatever the officer says happened is the truth."
In another case a woman in handcuffs after being charged with DUI suffered cuts to her chin and shoulder. Stepp told investigators she tried to pull away and fell to the pavement.