Columbia Daily Tribune wins fight for records on police brutality case

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 | 5:29 p.m. CST; updated 8:12 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 16, 2010

COLUMBIA — A judge ruled Tuesday that police disciplinary records are public in response to a Columbia Police Officers Association request to block their release.

At issue is a December 2006 incident in which a Columbia police officer used force on a man during a traffic stop.

The man, Rodman Marine, filed a complaint. The department's internal investigations found on Feb. 8, 2007, that the officer, Justin LaForest, acted improperly. He resigned from the police department and now works as an officer in Ashland. 

Columbia Daily Tribune reporter T.J. Greaney asked the police department for records in connection with the incident. But the officers association sought a restraining order on Jan. 22 to stop the release of those records.

When Greaney went to pick up the records — 97 pages of documents and eight discs of video pertaining to the traffic stop and the ensuing internal investigation — the department told him that he would not be allowed to take them after all, according to an article published under Greaney's byline Tuesday.

At a hearing Tuesday morning, 13th Circuit Judge Kevin Crane said that the court's position is that the records will be open and ordered the police department to comply with the Tribune's request.

"I really don't see a way around the Sunshine Law, the way (the ordinance) is written," he said.

The ordinance at issue — passed by Columbia City Council in July 2009 — created the Citizens Police Review Board. It also made police records pertaining to citizen complaints open to the public. The police officers association cited the Missouri Sunshine Law in its effort to block the release of the records from the 2006 incident. Under the Sunshine Law, public bodies are allowed — but not required — to close records relating to personnel matters.

Scott Jansen, attorney for the officers association, argued that the records should not be released because the city is trying to apply an ordinance that was created after the Marine incident occurred.

"The records were closed, and now they are open," Jansen said. "This affects every active officer. You can't take a record that used to be closed and use an ordinance created by the (Citizens Police Review Board) before they existed."

The officers association can appeal the decision, but it wasn't clear if the organization  would pursue that option. Phone calls to Jansen's office were not immediately returned.

Cavanaugh Noce, attorney for the city of Columbia, argued against the police officers association's attempt to close the records. He noted that the state allows the records to be open.

"We're talking about the fundamentals and transparency in government," he said.

Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, said he was satisfied with the court's decision.

"Any time we can keep records open, it's a victory for newspapers and the community," he said. "The city law matches the state law, so it seems like a slam-dunk to me."

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