We just secured an important victory in our campaign to expose and eliminate the persistent and routine animal cruelties of Berkeley County Animal Control (BCAC) in West Virginia, which is a division of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department. A West Virginia judge has issued a ruling that will promote transparency and accountability from BCAC, a critical first step toward our goal of protecting the animals of Berkeley County from any cruelty and suffering while in the county’s care.
Since our in-depth investigation into BCAC in 2021 revealed what we consider to be a shocking pattern of animal cruelty in the shelter, Alley Cat Allies has pursued legal remedies to protect the animals of the county now and into the future.
Alley Cat Allies’ filings involved Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public records, including those involving the sheriff’s department’s treatment of animals, its campaign to try to discredit those who have exposed cruelty at BCAC, its training (or lack thereof) of animal shelter staff, and the policy that guides the shelter staff in determining care for animals in the shelter.
A Berkeley County Circuit Court Judge found that the sheriff’s department did not adequately search for or produce many of the documents as required by FOIA–a violation of a critical law that holds government entities accountable to the people. In short, by disregarding a FOIA request, the sheriff’s department is failing to uphold its duty to citizens.
Now, thanks to the Circuit Court judge’s order, the sheriff’s department must search for and produce existing non-exempt records that were previously not searched for or not produced. It is time for the sheriff’s department to finally comply with the same laws they are sworn to uphold, so the people of Berkeley County can understand at last what is happening to animals in their shelter behind the county’s veil of secrecy.
Following the judge’s initial order to produce the records, the sheriff’s department filed a motion requesting reconsideration. The judge replied by stating, “The Court reiterates that it previously found that the Defendant [the Sheriff’s Department] did not adequately search for the documents requested by the Plaintiff [the law firm representing Alley Cat Allies] in regard to certain FOIA requests and ordered the Defendant to promptly produce all non-exempt records.”
We can only begin to create needed change in a shelter system when we have access to information on the treatment of animals in its care. That is why public records, and FOIA, are so vital. Animal shelters are accountable to the people, and the people have a right to know how animals are treated with their tax dollars.
The judge’s order is an important step to ensuring Berkeley County provides that information so we can identify the root of the problem and tackle it head on to save animals’ lives. The court’s ruling makes a strong statement that the sheriff’s department is not above the law.
Alley Cat Allies is continuing its fight to protect the cats and other animals of Berkeley County by pursuing improvements to policies, programs, and shelter operations. We’ll keep you updated on the next steps.