COLUMBIA — Members of Columbia’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had some questions Tuesday night for Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner about the Columbia Police Department's process for filing complaints.
Whether the Police Department's complaint process is accessible enough for citizens, and whether it has been adequately explained was among the concerns expressed at the chapter's meeting.
Dresner said the department has made strides in this area, particularly through the creation of the Professional Standards Unit and its process of reviewing complaints.
The unit consists of Lt. John White and Sgt. Joe Bernhard. Dresner said that when the unit was proposed, it was recommended that it consist of three members, but the budget would not allow it.
Now, White is handling three separate complaints related to a fight at Hickman High School on Oct. 15, which was brought up during the meeting.
Dresner said he could not discuss specifics about the event because state law requires that personnel action against a public service employee remain closed. This poses a problem, he said, because he is trying to make the police department more transparent to the community.
“How can we give you something that, as the public, you can sink your teeth into and be satisfied, and still (as the police) be quiet about it?” he said.
The complaint process is valuable to citizens, he said, because it helps track officers' integrity, which is especially important when they testify in court.
"It could be a very small lie, but if that calls into question every aspect of a person's character, then how can they be trusted to stand up there in a murder investigation and say, 'This is how it was'?" he said.
Mary Ratliff, president of Columbia's NAACP, said the associationdistributes “Know Your Rights” cards to help people understand how to act around the police and when it is appropriate to file a complaint.
“We do spend a lot of time and a lot of money on these little cards that many of our young people have in the community,” she said. She said the NAACP could also arrange for a member of its Legal Redress Committee to accompany someone to the police department to help him or her file a complaint. Dresner said that would be encouraged.
In fact, he said, he would not oppose having officers keep complaint forms in their patrol cars to distribute to people they encounter.
On the subject of Tasers, Dresner had to agree to disagree with some NAACP members. The members questioned whether the devices’ use was warranted when it is impossible for officers to tell whether a person has a health condition, which would make it more likely for a Taser to have a fatal effect.
Dresner said the department operates on the basis of a hierarchy of safety. It must protect hostages, innocent people who are involved, the police and the person who is the focus of the operation, in that order.
"That may not sit well with you," but the hierarchy is a common one among police departments, he said.
The NAACP plans to hold more forums with Dresner and other members of the police department in the future, Ratliff said.
“What we need is leadership in the department that is willing to discuss the issues in the open ... and so this (forum) is a beginning for us,” she said.