Independent civilian board needed to review complaints against police officers

Saturday, April 26, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:21 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

I learned about DWB about 10 years ago, when I was managing editor of the Missourian. Our sports editor then was African American. He drove a nice car. In conversation in the newsroom one day, he recounted how he had been stopped more than once by Columbia police. Never arrested; never even a ticket.

When I naively asked why he supposed that was, he just laughed. His offense, he said, was one well known to every young African American male. “It’s DWB,” he said, as though explaining the obvious to someone from another planet. That’s Driving While Black, of course.

I’ve thought of Paul and the lesson he taught me every time the Columbia Police Department releases its annual report of traffic stops. Every year the report shows a disproportionate number of stops, and a disproportionate number of vehicle searches, of black drivers. Every year, Chief Boehm assures that there’s no such thing as profiling, or targeting, or discrimination.

Every year, I wonder.

Now the Missourian has reported (P. 1, April 18) on another study that should answer one of the questions raised by those traffic-stop statistics. The question is whether Columbia needs a civilian review board to take an independent look at complaints against the police. I wonder no more.

That’s because this study, by the Citizen Oversight Committee that is examining the need for a review board, shows beyond much doubt that we have a need. Let’s review the findings. They were obtained by the Missourian under the state’s open records law.

I quote from Jonathan Randles’ article:

“Internal investigations of complaints by white residents against Columbia police officers from 2005 through 2007 were about 10 times more likely to be found valid than complaints from black residents during the same period. ... 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.”

Prof. Rex Campbell, the MU sociologist and City Council veteran who co-chairs the Citizen Oversight Committee, told Randles: “People of different color are being treated differently by police. 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.”

In an e-mail Randles obtained, Chief Boehm says the same thing he says about the reports on traffic stops. His department doesn’t discriminate. “That’s just not true.”

What clearly is true is that in a variety of ways black Columbians are treated differently from white Columbians by our police.

Are some cops racist? They’re human, so I’m sure some are aversively or even consciously. Are all the complaints well founded? They’re made by humans, so I’m sure not all are.

The real question, though, is the one this study should answer definitively. That is, do we as a community need an independent body to examine in an objective way the actions of the force we pay to protect us from each other?

Oh yes.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Columbia Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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