Civilian review board no help to Police Department

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 | 7:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:45 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

There is but one endeavor more futile and unnecessarily costly than fixing something that was not broken in the first place. That is directing that superfluous corrective action be taken and, while in progress, either not allowing it to run its course to completion or worse, ignoring its success. I hope to be proven wrong; however, I fear the imposition of a civilian review board for the Columbia Police Department is a fait accompli.

According to its interim draft report, the Citizen Police Oversight Committee was appointed by Mayor Darwin Hindman because of concerns over allegations of police misconduct and malpractice across the nation, primarily directed against minorities. The 13-person committee consists of a wide community spectrum to include academics, businessmen and businesswomen, at least one former police officer and assorted activists. The organizations arguing the need for oversight are familiar ones — NAACP, Minority Men’s Network, Boone County Concerned Citizens and the ACLU.

The committee was chartered to become familiar with the Police Department’s system for reviewing complaints, to understand the “feelings” of the department and those of various concerned interest groups, to obtain general citizen comment and to study the scope of citizen complaints. To accomplish its assigned purpose, the committee heard from a number of interested groups and individuals. Of the few who testified individually, all were in favor of a civilian review board, and each voiced some real or perceived grievance from the past.

In a remarkable show of respect for the community, the Columbia Police Department completely accepted the recommendations of a consultant and overhauled the internal affairs review process, thus opening it to public scrutiny. The resultant compliment/complaint information report is provided to the public on a monthly and quarterly basis and reflects the number and type of complaints, the investigative findings and the action taken. In place since February 2008, the resultant transparency opens the books for all to see, thus obviating any need for additional oversight.

Why then should there be any need for further discussion? A system that was functioning capably received quantum improvement because of the efforts of highly professional and concerned law enforcement personnel. Unfortunately, the issue of race, undeniably the catalyst for the discussion in the first place, remains high on the list of concerns of a number of committee members, influential media personalities, interested organizations and parties and those with a personal axe to grind.

Citing statistics that purport to show that minorities are more often stopped for traffic offenses and more apt to be arrested than whites for similar offenses, many assume this to be proof of racial profiling. The Disraeli quote popularized by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damn lies and statistics,” points to the persuasive power of numbers and describes how perfectly accurate statistics may be used to prop up inaccurate arguments.

While it is true that blacks and Hispanics are stopped and arrested in greater numbers, that is neither a valid nor an objective assessment of relative fairness. For instance, at the request of members of that community to curtail drugs, prostitution and violent crime, the city manager directed increased police presence and activity in the North Garth corridor and its connector streets in August 2006. The resultant targeting of the inner city is merely an attack on crime at its source rather than an indication of racial profiling.

Looking objectively at the allegation that blacks are unfairly stopped with more frequency, how does the officer determine the color or race of the offender since most of the traffic stops are executed at night or from behind? In reality, Columbia mirrors the national data indicating that blacks are arrested for crimes of armed robbery and aggravated assault at much higher rates than their proportion of the population would suggest and that blacks are far more apt to be the victims of such criminal acts — hence the community request for more policing.

I have never made a secret of my opposition to a special civilian review board as sufficient oversight is provided by the mayor and City Council, the city manager, the free press and the Police Department’s internal review process. That policeman need not be constrained in the performance of his duty by the specter of second guessing by a panel of citizens who have never walked in his shoes nor the fear that he may be exceeding some arbitrary racial quota in his arrests.

Finally, the city is searching for a new chief of police. I doubt any prospective hire will entertain positively commanding a Police Department saddled with a newly commissioned and unnecessary albatross in the form of a civilian review board.

Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. E-mail him at

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