COLUMBIA — While sandwiched between two posters of aimed Tasers, four residents spoke to the City Council during its Monday night meeting about the Columbia Police Department’s possible misuse of Tasers, especially in relation to minorities.
“Judge, jury and electrocutioner: stop Taser abuse,” read one sign created by Linda Green, a member of Grass Roots Organizers. Green said her goal is for the council to create a citizen oversight board, not just a review board.
Ken Green, a member of GRO, who spoke at the meeting, said this oversight board would benefit the citizens, the city and police.
The department is acting inappropriately by using Tasers on people they shouldn’t, said speaker Ed Berg, a volunteer with GRO. He offered solutions such as revamping training to focus on scenario training and defusing situations, improving oversight through an audit system and having more exact guidelines for officers.
When Katherine Murrie of GRO addressed the council, she said she was concerned that of 48 Taser cases released in a report from the police department, 13 of the people on whom the police used a Taser were mentally ill, and 19 people were “under the influence.”
“We are concerned about this population because a lot of them are the homeless we see on the streets,” Murrie said. She would like to see the creation of a crisis intervention team that would include mental health professionals.
“I believe it is racially motivated,” said Lorenzo Lawson, the executive director of Youth Empowerment Zone. He told the council that while blacks are about 10 percent of the population in Columbia, 56 percent of those involved in Taser incidents were black. He also said most of the people the police have used a Taser on live in the First Ward.
“We are giving conflicting messages to our young people by this Tasering situation,” he said. Lawson said he wants Tasers out of the police’s hands, and he questions when the police were given the right to be the “judge and executioner.”
“It makes me scared,” Lawson said.
Members of the coalition — a group consisting of the ACLU, the NAACP, the mid-Missouri chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and GRO — were present at Monday night's meeting to show support.
GRO and other groups have been raising concerns about Taser use for months. Following a Nov. 24 press conference by GRO, the police department released a statement in response to community concern. In that release, Interim Chief of Police Tom Dresner said: “Criticism by those with the comfort of hindsight, a microphone and a Monday morning, but little training in the complexities of modern policing is one of the essentials of democracy. However, until the majority decides otherwise, we must get on with our work."
But citizen groups are asking for changes and think Taser use is inappropriate, Berg said.
“Look at all the years they didn’t have them, and they did a good job,” Lawson said of police.