Police might be watched by citizen board

Thursday, September 25, 2008 | 9:39 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Fifteen months ago, creating a citizen review board to oversee the Columbia Police Department was an idea. Ten months ago, it was a possibility. Today, it appears to be a near certainty.

The Citizen Oversight Committee, set up in June 2007 by Mayor Darwin Hindman to help City Council decide whether a review board should be established, is set to publish its final report today. The committee has put its unanimous support behind setting up a review board.

And it seems the council might follow suit.

City Council members Paul Sturtz and Jerry Wade said the probability of the council approving a review board was high. Still, working out the details could take time, both said.

Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said he supported establishing a review board in principle, but he wanted to review the details before supporting any specific plan.

The oversight committee's report, which is the written product of meetings starting in November 2007, will be on the council's agenda for Oct. 6, Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins said. The entire council could discuss it then, she said, but it is more likely that a separate work session will be held sometime in October.

"It is a high priority for the mayor, (city manager Bill Watkins) and for the council," she said.

Oversight committee chairman Rex Campbell said he and co-chair Jeff Williams planned to make a presentation at the work session. The session will also give interested groups and members of the public a chance to weigh in.

Oversight committee member David Smith said a realistic timetable for getting the review board approved, funded and staffed would be about a year from now.

Meanwhile, ACLU lawyer Dan Viets said he was "rather frustrated at the snail-like progress on this project."

"This endless process of hearings and hand-wringing is not really getting us anywhere," he said.

The make-up of the review board is likely to be a topic of discussion for the council.

"You want to reflect as broad a perspective as possible," Sturtz said. "It can't be just activists, and you don't want it to be just former police officers. You want them to be a fairly impartial jury."

One issue the council will have to decide is whether to allow convicted felons to serve on the board. A subcommittee of the oversight committee initially drafted a provision that prevented only people who had been convicted of a felony in the last 10 years. That provision, which would have allowed people convicted more than 10 years earlier to serve, was removed, leaving the decision on the issue to the council.

"It's going to be absolutely critical who's on that committee," Campbell said. "It's going to make or break it."

Some residents have been calling for a review board for years. In 2004, Columbia NAACP President Mary Ratliff asked then-Police Chief Randy Boehm to establish a review board, but Boehm opposed the idea.

A 2008 report looking at internal police investigations of citizen complaints between 2005 and 2007 indicated that complaints by white citizens were 10 times more likely to be deemed valid than complaints by black citizens. Even when complaints by black citizens were found valid, the report said, the officers were punished less severely than officers who were the subject of a complaint by white citizens that was found valid.


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