Columbia police reopen investigation of alleged officer misconduct

Friday, February 19, 2010 | 6:41 p.m. CST; updated 10:09 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 20, 2010

The investigation into an allegation of police misconduct was mishandled by the Columbia Police Department and has been reopened, Police Chief Ken Burton said Friday.

Burton said the department "dropped the ball," when Derek Billups filed a complaint in December about allegedly being thrown to the ground by Officer Nathan Turner.

Allegations of officer wrongdoing are supposed to go to the Internal Affairs Unit for investigation, Burton said. Then the finished report is sent to him for final judgment on whether the officer acted appropriately and if the internal investigators sufficiently reviewed the matter. The Internal Affairs Unit is one of three units that make up the department's Professional Standards Unit.

Instead, Billups' complaint went to Sgt. Don Hawkins, a patrol sergeant, who later sent a letter to Billups saying the officer's actions were appropriate.

Burton said he learned about the mix-up from attorney Dan Viets, who wrote a letter to several city officials that detailed Billups' struggle with the complaint. Viets said Hawkins' response was an "apparent violation" of city ordinances.

After receiving Viets' letter, Burton said the investigation would be reopened. He blamed an internal mix-up and some poor notetaking for the snafu.

"It's our bad," Burton said. "But we didn't record the conversation when (Billups) called, or take any notes about it." The lack of notetaking meant there is no way to review what was actually said.

Burton said a sergeant in the Internal Affairs Unit, Sgt. Joe Bernhard, thought Billups was merely complaining about his pants getting wet when an officer sat him on the ground. So Bernhard forwarded the complaint to Turner's patrol sergeant, Sgt. Hawkins, instead of formally investigating.

Officer misconduct is reviewed by internal affairs and the chief of police, Burton said, but complaints of shoddy officer service are handled by an officer's supervisor. Wet pants are poor service; allegations of improper violence, like being thrown to the ground, call for a formal internal investigation.

Billups tried to take the matter to the Citizens Police Review Board, a nine-member group created in July 2009 by a city ordinance to review decisions made by the department's internal review process.

To date, the board hasn't reviewed any cases. Billups had problems getting an application and understanding the process for initiating a review by the board, according to Viets. But Billups' case likely couldn't have been reviewed by the board anyway — the Citizens Police Review Board doesn't appear to have jurisdiction over a complaint until after the police chief has reviewed the complaint and made a decision.

Burton called Viets and apologized after reading his letter, which had voiced frustration about the "city's failure to comply with (Citizens Police Review Board) ordinances."

"It's not something that will happen again," Burton said.

Viets said he had gotten "good responses" from the initial letter. He said he appreciated the call from Burton and the promise that future complaints would be properly handled.

"That was the best response I could ask for, under the circumstances," Viets said.

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