COLUMBIA — For the second time in less than a week, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton stood in front of reporters and announced changes in the way his department uses a SWAT team.
"We did some things wrong," Burton said at the Monday afternoon press conference held at the Columbia Police Department. "And I'm telling you, it won't happen again."
Several officers packed the doorways behind the press corps, listening to their chief as he outlined changes he called "unpopular" among some in the department.
The changes include:
- A captain in charge of the area where the raid is to take place has to approve the operation.
- The location has to be under constant surveillance once the warrant has been issued.
- A raid is not to take place when children are present except "under the most extreme circumstances," Burton said.
"We will always police with common sense," he said.
However, it's yet to be seen whether the latest adjustments will stem the backlash over a case that has thrown the department's little-publicized SWAT team into the spotlight and raised questions about several of the departments' policies.
The department has faced criticism — and even received death threats — since a video of a Feb. 11 drug raid on a Columbia man's home was posted on the Internet. The video captured the sound of Jonathan Whitworth's pit bull, Nola, being fatally shot by SWAT team of at least eight officers. The Whitworths' Welsh corgi was also injured during the raid, which took place with Whitworth's wife and 7-year-old son in the home.
The raid came eight days after police obtained the warrant on tips from two confidential informants. Police suspected Whitworth of dealing a large amount of marijuana but only found a pipe and what police described as a misdemeanor amount of the drug.
Whitworth later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia and was fined $300. He has not filed a lawsuit or a complaint with the department, and his lawyer, Jeff Hilbrenner, said Monday that Whitworth was still considering all his options. Hilbrenner said Whitworth had received offers from strangers "all across the country" to set up a legal fund for him, or to buy him a new dog.
But though Whitworth's criminal case may be closed, his file was in the office of Associate Circuit Judge Larry Bryson on Monday morning, according to the Boone County Courthouse clerk's office. Bryson presided over Whitworth's criminal case. Typically, unless there's a hearing scheduled, the case file is available in the clerk's office for public viewing.
An explanation was neither available nor apparent. Judges are not allowed to comment on individual cases.
Adding to the intrigue was the possibility of a high-profile test for the Citizens Police Review Board, which could come from a complaint filed by someone not involved in Whitworth's case. Anyone is allowed to file a complaint with the department if they are dissatisfied with police conduct, said Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jessie Haden.
Haden called a complaint "superfluous" since the department is still wrapping up its internal investigation, expected to be completed later this week. But once the internal review is complete, the path could be open for a complaint about the review's findings that can be appealed to the review board, said board chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez.
“We can’t do anything at this point as far as an actual investigation, but we are supposed to review Police Department policies and procedures,” said LoCurto-Martinez.
The review board has also moved their 7 p.m. Wednesday meeting from the Armory Sports and Community Center to the council chambers in City Hall.
“We’re expecting a lot of people from the public to be attending, so we wanted to find a place that was a bit larger,” said LoCurto-Martinez, who also said the board had been swamped with letters and e-mails from people across the nation who are outraged by the incident.
Mayor Bob McDavid and Chief Burton are expected to attend the meeting. Burton also said he expected to present his policy changes to the board soon, but purely as a review; the changes have already been implemented.
The public feedback is also expected to spill over to next week's City Council meeting. According to Carol Rhodes, who works in the City Manager's office, at least eight people had signed up to speak about the incident by Monday afternoon.
The rancor that has accumulated around the SWAT raid — the video had amassed almost 900,000 hits on YouTube as of Monday night — may be due to the fact that the incident has struck a nerve with a broad cut of the public.
In Monday's press conference, Burton said feedback to the department seemed to be coming from three discrete groups, some of whom he believed were reacting to bad information.
"The biggest group seems to be the marijuana legalization advocates," Burton said, who he urged to lobby policymakers if they wanted a change in the law.
The next group were animal rights advocates. Burton lamented the death of the Whitworth's pit bull, but had a do-what-you-gotta-do outlook on the SWAT team's handling of dogs, calling human safety the "primary" concern.
And the last group?
"The last group is the people that hate us anyway, for whatever reason," Burton said. "And I don't put any stock into what they say. There are cop haters out there, and that's just something we'll have to live with."
While the incident has prompted decision-making changes in handling of drug raids — such as Burton's Thursday announcement that raids would now be served within eight hours after police obtain a warrant — the department's policies on the tactical treatment of dogs and suspects remain unchanged.
So has Burton learned anything from the incident?
"I hate the Internet," he deadpanned.
Missourian reporter Anne Christnovich contributed to this report.