COLUMBIA — A panel of six activists held a news conference Monday morning to discuss their findings after reviewing the records of 49 Taser incidents released by the Columbia Police Department last month. The Police Department released a response to the conference that same morning.
About 30 people sat inside the Labor Temple at 611 N. Garth Ave. There, the Taser Control Coalition discussed their impressions of the current state of the Columbia Police Department’s Taser policy.
The coalition is formed by four advocacy groups: the American Civil Liberties Union; the NAACP; the mid-Missouri chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and Grass Roots Organizing, who first filed the Missouri Sunshine Law request.
Ed Berg, attorney and GRO volunteer, first submitted the request in August, according to Missourian archives. Columbia police released the records on Oct. 31 in a report that was 910 pages in length and included police reports on incidents in which a Taser was used on a suspect, the disciplinary actions taken against officers involved in Taser misuse, Taser-use policy documents and all listings of less-than-lethal use of force since 2002, according to archives.
The meeting started off with a statement by Linda Green, a member of WILPF, who described an incident in the report in which an officer used a Taser on a man fleeing from him. The officer had approached the man on suspicion of urinating in public.
“We need to ask, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’” Green said. “Did the officer follow regulations?”
Green said that the use of a Taser in this situation was “completely inappropriate,” as there was no imminent danger to the police, the suspect or the public.
Katherine Murrie, a member of GRO, later discussed the need for stricter policies concerning the use of Tasers on the mentally ill.
“These situations are very complex,” Murrie said.
Murrie said her impression after reading the records is that the department is lacking consistency in how it handles the mentally ill. She also said she would like to see the creation of a crisis intervention team, consisting of both police officers and mental health officials.
During the question-and-answer session at the end of the conference, the subject was brought up again, this time in regard to veterans. It was proposed by one of the conference attendees that the department should work with the veterans hospital to improve its policies in handling veterans with mental illnesses.
Carolyn Matthews, an attorney on the board of the ACLU, read aloud a proposal by the coalition to hire help from the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center when dealing with incidents involving a person with a mental illness.
Berg discussed GRO’s request for the Taser records and expressed his disappointment that 20 records were not disclosed to the public. The records were not included in the report because they were dismissed, were still pending in court or concerned a juvenile.
Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze said in a Nov. 21 e-mail that juvenile cases are always closed and that the department cannot provide a report in which the identifying information is redacted.
Berg also brought up the topic of creating a citizen oversight committee for Taser use and said that it is the most important measure that needs to be instituted.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala attended the conference and addressed the issue. While there is no set date, he said he thinks the creation of an oversight committee will begin by Jan. 1 and that a group should be functioning by spring of 2009.
In the Police Department's release Monday morning, Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said that although the department welcomes public debate about its Taser policy, continual "subjective criticism by a third party with an arguable agenda" is not something they can engage in.