COLUMBIA — School Resource Officer Mark Brotemarkle was cleared Thursday after an internal investigation of his conduct while breaking up a fight at Hickman High School, but that may not be the controversy's end.
As the City Council considers a proposed citizen review board to oversee the Police Department, some supporters see the Brotemarkle situation as exhibit A in the case for a board.
If the council approves the board in its proposed form, either side involved in a complaint with the Police Department could appeal the outcome of an internal investigation. A board could also hire its own investigator to conduct a new inquiry if it deemed that necessary.
What remains unclear is whether a board, at some point in the future, could hear an appeal of the decision in Brotemarkle’s case. The time frame for filing an appeal is one of many details that haven’t been figured out.
Rex Campbell, chairman of the citizen committee that recommended a review board to the council, said the committee discussed what the time frame should be during meetings, but it did not reach a conclusion in its proposal to the council. He said he thought giving both sides between six months and a year to appeal would be reasonable.
A board – in its proposed form – could also ask the Police Department to review certain policies and procedures.
Campbell said Brotemarkle’s actions seemed in line with the department’s policy on use of force, but he suggested the policy might need to be reviewed.
“I can speculate that a (citizen review board) might recommend to the Police Department that they should review their policies and procedures for school officers,” Campbell said.
At a recent work session, a majority of City Council members seemed to support – at least in principle – establishing a review board, though it appears it will take time to hammer out the details. If the board gets council approval, it is still not clear how similar it would look to the one proposed by the Citizen Oversight Committee.
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz, who supports establishing a review board, criticized the decision to leave Brotemarkle in the school during the internal investigation and said the situation “has reinforced the necessity to have a board that is independent and fair.”
“This is exactly the kind of high-profile case in which we’re having an ongoing controversy where the air needs to be cleared with some facts and some re-establishing of protocols,” Sturtz said.
Sturtz made his comments before the department’s decision, and he said Thursday he would refrain from commenting on it until he’d had a chance to examine the 25-page document.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who opposes establishing a review board, said she had faith in the internal investigation process and Thursday's police decision.
“I wasn’t there (during the fight at Hickman),” she said. “To look at something from a YouTube video or any type of electronic media without actually having been there to see the totality of the circumstances, I think, is inappropriate for anybody who’s sitting on the outside judging in.”
Nauser said she thought public discussion was wrongly focused on Brotemarkle's actions rather than on the behavior of students fighting in schools.
She said she opposes setting up a board because she first wants to see if the relatively new Professional Standards Unit can adequately handle complaints and build community trust.
“I still feel that the process with the new internal affairs review is a process that should be allowed to run its course to see if that curbs any mistrust,” Nauser said. “Quite frankly, I think there’s a level of distrust that is never going to be solved no matter what anybody does. And I think that a review board is going to give people a false idea, if they find a situation has been ruled to their dissatisfaction that they’re going to end up with a different outcome.”
Establishing a board could also have implications for the ongoing public debate about Taser use.
The council recently approved the department’s purchase of 40 Tasers, but use of the devices has come under fire after subsequent incidents. In July, Columbia police used a Taser on a man threatening to jump off an overpass, and the man fell, breaking multiple bones. In August, a Moberly man died after police there used a Taser on him.
A review board could ask the department to review its policy on Taser use, Campbell said.
Meanwhile, the Police Department has been taking steps toward internal reform. The department overhauled its internal investigations process, with the new Professional Standards Unit going into effect in February. The department also recently ordered a $10,000 software program called IA Pro that tracks complaints and other data and generates automatic alerts about potential at-risk officers, said Lt. John White, one of two members of the new unit. The department is also seeking to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, White said.
Both the software and the accreditation were recommendations of the Citizen Oversight Committee. Mayor Darwin Hindman set up the committee in June 2007 to help the City Council decide whether to establish a review board.
This June, the committee voted unanimously in favor of setting up a board, citing a particular mistrust of the Police Department in the black community.
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. The report also suggested that, even when complaints by black citizens were deemed valid, the officers involved were punished less severely than officers who were determined to have acted improperly toward white citizens.
Some, including Campbell, worry that the Police Department has an image problem that no internal reforms can solve. At a recent work session, Campbell told the City Council: “There is a mistrust (of the Police Department) with some people that cannot be addressed by anyone but an outside group.”
Gene Robertson said Thursday’s decision won’t help the department win the community’s trust. A retired MU professor, he helped organize a protest of the department’s decision to leave Brotemarkle at Hickman High School while he was being investigated.
“You have a situation here like you often have where police are protecting policemen,” he said. “They’re closing ranks to protect a policeman. And so, it’s them against us, and there isn’t any intervening entity.”
A review board could be that “intervening entity,” he said, as long as it is independent and has enough authority.
Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said he would not oppose a review board in principle, but he would have to look at the specifics before deciding.
Now, more than a year after the Citizen Oversight Committee began meeting, ACLU lawyer Dan Viets said he was frustrated with the pace of progress.
“There is no reason why it should take this long,” he said. “(A board) should already be in operation.”
Sturtz said he thought a council vote on whether to establish a board would take place in the first quarter of 2009.