COLUMBIA — Candidates for Columbia’s police chief fielded questions on crime prevention, police partnership with the community and Taser use during an open media forum on Monday.
The media gathering and a separate public forum later in the day were part of the next step in the search for a replacement for Police Chief Randy Boehm, who retired in May 2008 after 31 years with the department. On Tuesday, the city manager and staff will have further meetings with candidates.
The candidates for police chief are Police Chief Kenneth M. Burton of Haltom City, Texas; Police Maj. Christine L. Laughlin of Kansas City; Police Chief Wayne I. McCoy of Blue Springs.; and Todd A. Miller, who was most recently police chief in Terrell, Texas.
Earlier in the day, one of the candidates in the search, Police Chief Michael Clancey of Saluda, S.C., withdrew his name from consideration. According to Slavin Management Consultants, a firm that has helped manage the search, an injury prevented Clancey from flying to Columbia for interviews.
During Monday's gathering, the candidates agreed Tasers can be an effective tool under certain circumstances but said there should be oversight of their use. Most of the candidates have been in a department where there was a Taser review process.
McCoy said that officers in the Blue Springs Police Department have to fill out paperwork every time a Taser is used. The weapon's use should be limited, he said, and officers should be trained on how and when to use them.
Miller agreed there should be a Taser policy in place that clearly states when Tasers should be discharged and includes a review process that looks at how and when the device was used. He said he has seen people injured by Tasers, but he believes they can be effective and less dangerous than other weapons.
"Tasers are another tool in an officer's tool bag that can be effective," Miller said, echoing the sentiments of the other candidates. "If it is abused, it can be a problem."
Burton said citizens should make the ultimate decision about whether their police department uses Tasers. As for internal review processes, holding officers under his command accountable has helped make it clear that their actions will be examined. A force continuum in place in his department, based on a suspect's level of resistance, establishes the parameters for Taser use.
"We want our officers to go home at night; we want them to go home uninjured," Burton said. But, he added, "any time any officer restricts the freedom of our citizens, they need to answer to it."
Laughlin said that in her department, a suspect's level of resistance also determines whether a Taser can be used, and that is when a suspect is “actively resistant." Laughlin also said the formation of such a policy in Columbia should rely heavily on citizen input.
A handful of members of the Coalition to Control Tasers, a group made up of citizens looking into the Columbia Police Department’s use of Tasers, attended the media forum. Many seemed keenly interested in the candidates’ view of Taser use and accountability.
Mary Hussmann, a member of the Coalition to Control Tasers, said that attitudes in the police department about the weapons will be influenced by the new police chief. The group wanted to make sure that candidates knew this was a significant issue in the community, Hussmann said, and that they were aware that it has affected people in disabled and minority populations in Columbia disproportionately.
“We want to make sure that they come in here and know this is an issue that cannot be ignored,” Hussmann said. “The chief needs to be a leader on this issue.”
Another topic all the candidates touched on was the role of citizen review boards in communities. While they seemed to share the view that citizen review processes can be effective, they had slightly different ideas about the need and the effectiveness of these boards.
Laughlin said that there is a Board of Police Commissioners in Kansas City, appointed by the mayor, which has the power to decide whether complaints are justified. The internal affairs division at the police department reviews complaints, but it is the job of the board to decide whether a matter has been adequately investigated. She said she would be comfortable dealing with a review board here in Columbia because she has interacted with one for 26 years.
"I think it is good for officers to have a tremendous amount of contact with citizens," Laughlin said. "I think the chief of police should also have contact with citizens."
Miller agreed that transparency and openness are important for a police department, but he said a citizen review board can only be effective with the right people. He has found that in smaller communities, such as Terrell, Texas, city councils have assumed the responsibility of a citizen review board, but he thinks the best groups are made up of educated residents who look at the limitations of officers and the information available to them at the time of an incident.
McCoy, who worked with a citizen group in Worthington, Ohio, said that review boards can be useful because they can help citizens understand police officers’ jobs and decision-making processes and give police departments a chance to interact with the community. He has found that people are more inclined to support a department’s actions if they understand the nature of police work.
"If we don't have the support of the community, we can't do our jobs," McCoy said.
Later on Monday, in an open forum at the Activities and Recreation Center, a group of citizens met with and questioned candidates about citizen oversight, communication with the community and goals for the department. Many were concerned with candidates’ views of police oversight and their abilities to move the police department forward.
"We think highly of the Columbia Police Department, and we want a chief who is willing to talk to the community,"said Mary Hobbs, who has lived in Columbia for more than 30 years.
Robin Remington, who is part of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Now Coalition, said she thinks Laughlin and Miller are the most qualified candidates for the job.
"I wouldn't hesitate to say that Christine is the best candidate," Remington said, adding that Laughlin was goal oriented and was well poised to take over a job in Columbia because of her experience in Kansas City.