Council considers citizen oversight of police

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 | 11:44 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A proposed citizen board to oversee the Columbia Police Department appeared to have the support of a majority of City Council members during a work session Wednesday night, but, as Councilman Karl Skala said, "The devil's in the details."

Discussion indicated these details might include how often a review board would meet with the police chief, how the board would interact with other boards already reviewing police officers' actions and whether citizens with criminal backgrounds could serve on the board.

The only stated opposition to establishing a board came from Councilwoman Laura Nauser. She expressed concern that the board might not be the panacea for community-police relations that many hope it will be.

After the close of the session, Nauser said she favored letting the internal reforms currently under way in the Police Department play out before deciding whether a review board is necessary.

In June 2007, Mayor Darwin Hindman set up the Citizen Oversight Committee to help the council decide whether to establish a citizen review board. The committee's final report, which the council is now considering, recommends establishing a citizen review board that would hear appeals to rulings by the Professional Standards Unit, the police's internal investigations department.

Oversight committee chairman Rex Campbell and co-chair Jeff Williams presented the committee's findings to the council.

"There is a mistrust (of the Police Department) with some people that cannot be addressed by anyone but an outside group," Campbell said.

Some Columbia residents have been calling for a review board for years. A 2008 report looking at internal police investigations of citizen complaints between 2005 and 2007 indicated that complaints by black citizens were less likely to be deemed valid than complaints by white citizens.

Meanwhile, the Police Department has initiated its own internal reforms, said Lt. John White, who attended Wednesday's work session. The department has hired a policy director, he said, and is pursuing accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. White, of the Professional Standards Unit, said the department also just got approval to order IA Pro, a $10,000 software program that tracks complaints and other police data.

Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner has previously said he would not oppose a review board in principle, but he would have to withhold judgment until looking at the specific proposal.

On Wednesday, White said: "The Police Department is not afraid of a citizen review board. We're not trying to hide things. … We're trying to air out the process."

City Manager Bill Watkins said the council will hold another work session about the oversight committee's report, but a date has not yet been set.

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Charles Dudley Jr October 23, 2008 | 4:22 a.m.

There is nothing wrong with a "Citizens Watch Dog Group" that oversee's issues between the police and the public in all matters of grave importance.

That is how the the citizens can have their concerns acknowledged openly in the public eye just as all other groups of this type work in Columbia.

It is time this city come to terms with itself and actually be truly progressive rather than regressive in nature if this city is to be able to move forward continually at a smooth pace.

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