COLUMBIA — The Citizen Oversight Committee, the group determining whether there will be citizen oversight of the Columbia Police Department, will hold a series of public meetings throughout the next two months to see what residents think about having a citizen review board monitoring the Police Department.
Starting March 13 at Smithton Middle School, committee members will host open meetings where citizens can discuss their experience with the Police Department as well as their feelings on citizen oversight. This is the first time the committee has engaged the public directly.
Committee member Ellen LoCurto-Martinez said these meetings are an important step in making sure people have an opportunity to voice their opinion about civilian review.
“We wanted to find locations that are central to the communities we’re trying to reach,” LoCurto-Martinez said. “We’re trying to make these meetings as accessible to as many people as possible.”
At a committee meeting on March 6, Wynna Faye Elbert, a committee member and host of the radio show “Straight Talk,” said people have stopped her on the street because they want to know what the committee is discussing. Elbert said these public meetings will be a good way to provide people with a better understanding of how the committee works and gathers information.
“There are people who really want to know what’s going on,” Elbert said.
All six meetings will last approximately two hours. Each person in attendance will have three minutes to tell the committee what he or she thinks about civilian review. Any remaining time will be used for an informal discussion.
Committee members will also be handing out questionnaires for those who don’t want to speak at the meeting.
LoCurto-Martinez said a successful meeting will have a large turnout from a diverse group of people who are willing to tell the committee what they think.
Jeffrey Williams, the committee’s co-chair, said he wants people to understand that the committee is not a civilian review board, but will instead determine whether civilian review of the Police Department is necessary. He said he is concerned with making sure the public is treated fairly.
“We want to know what kind of experiences people have with the Columbia Police Department,” Williams said. “It’s about the process; we like to think we’ll be fair and impartial.”
The committee, which comprises 15 members, has hosted community leaders, police officers and civilian oversight experts since November to gather information from a wide range of perspectives. This is the first step in making sure the committee engages as many community stakeholders as possible.
“The committee is determining whether or not to have a civilian review board,” LoCurto-Martinez said. “We can’t make that decision without knowing what the public wants.”
The committee will submit its findings and recommendations to City Council in August.
Mayor Darwin Hindman formed the Citizen Oversight Committee in June 2007; the committee met for the first time on Nov. 28. The committee was Hindman’s response to a year’s worth of public concern over the Police Department’s conduct toward citizens. The department has since overhauled its internal affairs process by creating a Professional Standards Unit to handle citizens’ complaints of officer misconduct.