Citizens deserve their own police review board

Friday, June 12, 2009 | 12:10 p.m. CDT; updated 8:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 19, 2009

It was a different crowd that showed up at Monday’s City Council meeting to discuss the establishment of a Citizens’ Police Review Board.

It wasn’t the wine and latte sippers that visit art shows and film festivals, nor the country music fans that frequent the likes of Cody’s or the ever-present college kids found along Broadway.

This crowd is best described as the other side of Columbia, the side heavily composed of minorities and those who aren’t hesitant to work or live alongside them. The side that tends to have vastly different experiences with the law than, say, someone like myself, whose brushes with police have come mostly through journalistic endeavors such as ride-alongs and fundraisers.

During the meeting, which clocked in at more than four hours, a host of individuals and advocacy groups too lengthy to mention delivered impassioned pleas to set in place a council-appointed citizen group to act as a mediator between the police department and the community at large.

Although I did not grow up in Columbia, I can certainly grasp the issue. As a white male — the demographic reportedly the least likely to face police harassment — even I would think twice before approaching a local precinct to file a complaint, be it in Columbia or anywhere else. I’ve heard too many horror stories of those who have done so only to find themselves a subsequent target of verbal abuse and unnecessary traffic stops.

So far, however, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Columbia Police Department. Police representatives, including Chief Kenneth Burton, showed up for the meeting, listened respectfully and voiced their own concerns. To the Police Department’s credit, according to the first quarter report presented by officials, officers did not use force in 95 percent of in-custody arrests — an impressive total in response to nearly 37,000 calls. The department also held five public hearings in a two-month period geared toward citizen participation, though most of those hearings elicited only a handful of speakers. So why, police officials asked at the meeting, do we need a review board?

The answer lies in the old adage regarding firearms: It’s better to have one and not need it then to need one and not have it. Police officers will always be mistrusted by certain factions in the community, and unfortunately those factions are often divided along racial and economic lines. Whether they choose to use a review board, at least the mechanism would be in place.

In Columbia, few minorities hold positions of real authority. Not due to racism or discrimination — the plethora of Obama bumper stickers speak to the city’s progressive mindset — but to the simple fact that Columbia is more than 80 percent white to begin with, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A board of citizens that includes all the faces of Columbia, in its diversity of background and opinion, would go a long way in helping marginalized residents find a voice. And judging from the ordinance I saw at the meeting, Columbia’s power structure would effectively stay in place.

A review board merely adds another layer for those residents who file complaints but are dissatisfied with the results. Police officials are right to question the qualifications of those who presume to sit on a review board. Law enforcement maintains high standards for those who join its ranks. A review board should demand no less, and members should abide by standards set by a national police oversight association. Doing so lends a review board authority and legitimacy. It’s one thing to say members need to demonstrate mature, balanced judgment; it’s another to select people who reflect this quality.

Having tabled the motion, the council has many “whethers” to work out before revisiting the issue in July: whether to give the board the power to subpoena witnesses, whether the police chief should be present at meetings, whether to allow residents to appeal directly to the city manager and whether any fat can be trimmed from the $87,000 price tag (enough to hire two additional officers, as was pointed out). It is far better to work with the police department through these issues rather than risk its alienation. In a perfect community, residents wouldn't fear their local police department. No community is perfect, but a review board would be a modest step toward that goal.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU.

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