Complaints against police show racial disparity

Thursday, April 17, 2008 | 10:52 p.m. CDT; updated 4:03 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mary Ratliff, president of the Missouri NAACP, speaks before the Columbia Citizen Oversight Committee at the Armory Sports & Community Center on Thursday. Ratliff and dozens of other Columbia residents gathered to voice the need for citizen review of the Columbia Police Department as well as to recount personal grievances with the department.

COLUMBIA — Internal investigations of complaints by white citizens against Columbia police officers from 2005 through 2007 were about 10 times more likely to be found valid than complaints from black citizens during the same period, according to a report requested by and compiled for the Citizen Oversight Committee.

The report, which summarizes 130 citizen complaints filed against officers during the three-year period, also shows statistically that even when black citizens’ complaints were found to be valid, the punishment of officers found guilty of misconduct was less severe than those found guilty of misconduct against whites.

According to the report, when an officer was found to have acted improperly, he or she was suspended about 70 percent of the time if a white person had filed the complaint but only 50 percent of the time if a black person filed it. The other half of complaints filed by blacks that resulted in findings of misconduct resulted in an officer receiving a memorandum, counseling or a written reprimand.

The Missourian obtained the data on Wednesday after filing a request for records under the Missouri Sunshine Law. It also obtained dozens of pages of e-mail conversations about the data that took place among City Manager Bill Watkins, Police Chief Randy Boehm, Police Capt. Mike Martin, Oversight Committee Co-chairman Rex Campbell and consultant Aaron Thompson.

“People of different color are being treated differently by police,” Campbell said in an interview. “I speculate aversive racism, meaning that a person who is not consciously a racist ... will unconsciously behave differently based on what ethnic group they are.”

More than half the total complaints filed during the three-year period came from blacks. In only two of those cases, or 3.2 percent, were officers found to have acted inappropriately. Among the 37 white citizens that filed complaints, 19 officers were found to have acted inappropriately.

“The bottom line is, the numbers are completely appalling,” said committee member David Tyson Smith. “They’re shocking. Nobody expected that things were going to be this bad. Everyone who has looked at this report has been shocked.

“This report is an atom bomb, a smoking gun. And now what do we do? It’s just bad,” Smith said.

In September 2005, Smith proposed an ordinance to the Columbia City Council that would have created a civilian review board, according to previous Missourian reports. At the time, Watkins wrote in a recommendation to City Council that such an ordinance “would be like trying to kill a mosquito with a 50 pound sledgehammer.”

Watkins could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In total, 21 investigations, or about 16 percent, of complaints found officer misconduct. Of those 21, 15 officers were suspended. Among all complaints, officers were exonerated 75 percent of the time. Ten percent of cases resulted in a finding of “undetermined.”

Complaints from blacks yielded findings of “undetermined” 16.1 percent of the time, while complaints from whites yielded such findings only 1.5 percent of the time. That means a complaint from a black citizen was almost 11 times more likely to receive no resolution than complaints from whites.

In a March 26 e-mail to the police chief, Watkins expressed concerns about the data.

“Complaints by blacks statistically came to a different result than whites. The total numbers don’t bother me as much as their outcomes,” Watkins said.

In his response to Watkins, Boehm refuted the idea that the data proves police treat people differently based on race.

“We are very frustrated that Jeff and to some extent Rex want to look at raw numbers and come to a conclusion that CPD has issues with race,” Boehm wrote, referring to Campbell and Oversight Committee Co-chairman Jeffrey Williams. “That’s just not true.”

In an interview Thursday, Columbia Police Capt. Mike Martin, who gathered the raw data for the report, said its conclusions are misleading.

“There is no discrepancy on how complaints are investigated based on race,” Martin said.

Martin said it wasn’t police practice from 2005 through 2007 to record the race of complainants. Martin said he had to search through all the complaint files and gather the demographic information.

Campbell said he believes the report is credible and in the context of Columbia’s recent history shows a disturbing pattern. “Look at this (data) in a larger package and it provides a much clearer picture than any one piece of information can provide,” Campbell said.

In an e-mail response to Bill Watkins dated March 26, Boehm wrote: “One minute they argue that the reason we have so few complaints overall is that African Americans are afraid to complain to us. Then they see numbers that suggest that more African Americans complain to us percentage-wise and they say that proves a race issue.”

All the complaints referenced in the report were received before the police department overhauled its internal affairs process in November and created the Professional Standards Unit to handle citizens’ complaints. The Professional Standards Unit began its work on February 1. The old internal affairs process had not been overhauled in more than 30 years.

As part of the overhaul, all officers were required to complete training in the new internal affairs process. Martin said it was a “significant shift” in how the department handles its business.

Campbell applauded the police for changing their internal affairs process.

“The internal affairs overhaul was an excellent move,” Campbell said. Though it needs time to work, he said “there is this reservoir of distrust, and that’s going to take years to resolve even under the best of circumstances.”

Aaron Thompson, who recommended the internal affairs overhaul to the Columbia City Council, has conducted the department’s diversity training every two years since 1996. The training consists of one eight-hour seminar.

Thompson acknowledged that diversity training is limited in its effectiveness. “I can train you for eight hours, but I can’t train your heart,” he said.

Campbell said that one possible solution to what he believes is aversive racism within the police department would be to recommend permanent citizen oversight of the police to City Council.

“People don’t trust the police,” Campbell said. “Our committee will make a recommendation to City Council (on citizen oversight), my guess would be the committee will suggest citizen oversight.”

Smith shares that view. “With these numbers I would be very surprised — shocked — if the committee did not move to citizen review,” he said.

Campbell acknowledged in an March 25 e-mail to Watkins and Mayor Darwin Hindman that the report was likely to displease police.

“Many of the police of Columbia undoubtedly hold aversive forms of racism (some may still have overt racism),” Campbell wrote. “The available evidence strongly suggests that is true. I am referring to the traffic profiling data, the recently compiled complaint data and antidotal (sic) information I have obtained from many MU students and faculty.”

In another e-mail, dated March 26, Campbell pledged to forge ahead in spite of the potential fallout: “Bill: I know that we are rattling some cages that many people would prefer not to have rattled, but if people ask me to do a job, my attitude is and will be ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.’”

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Barbara de Leon April 18, 2008 | 6:38 p.m.

Excellent Article! Extremly informative! It is certainly about time that this information is made public! Now let's see what good comes from it!

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