COLUMBIA — The recent public outcry over a Feb. 11 SWAT raid by the Columbia Police Department shows signs of coalescing into a sustained community discussion.
Two citizens told the Columbia City Council their ideas for changing the Police Department as part of the council's scheduled comment session Monday. Later in the meeting, Mayor Bob McDavid called for a report on the incident and a review of the department's policies, saying they need "to be formally presented and articulated."
By rule, the council can only hear a scheduled comment from two speakers on a single issue. But when MU student Spencer Pearson, 19, asked a packed audience to stand up if they came to hear about Columbia's SWAT team, almost half the room got out of their seats.
Most remained standing as Pearson acknowledged that he was a single advocate speaking on behalf of a big tent — one that includes animal lovers, marijuana advocates, defense attorneys and taxpayers, among others.
Pearson noted each group's disparate concerns regarding confidential informants, violent tactics and the use of limited police resources to fight nonviolent crime.
"We want to be able to trust the police to protect us and to serve us, and we’ve come up with simple, straightforward policy changes ... that we believe will ensure incidents like this one won’t happen again," Pearson said.
His remarks transitioned into those of Holly Henry, who presented the following suggestions and changes:
- An independent investigation into the Feb. 11 SWAT raid on Jonathan Whitworth's house, which resulted in the shooting death of Whitworth's pit bull;
- Disclosure of any evidence or results that can be released from the internal investigation of the incident;
- Accountability for a "shoddy investigation" leading up to the raid on Whitworth's home;
- Limitations on the deployment of SWAT; and
- Requiring video documentation of all raids and monthly reports on SWAT deployment
After giving their remarks, Henry and Pearson said they met the day before through a Facebook group created for Monday night's meeting. Henry said the wide range of interests — and the limited time available at the meeting — forced the two to develop a plan and synthesize specific policy proposals.
"It was kind of a lot of pressure to represent all these diverse voices that were coming out on the Tribune's comment section, the Missourian's comment section, on Facebook," Henry said.
Henry and Pearson's collaboration was a vivid reminder of the Internet's ongoing role in fostering public debate about the raid, for better or for worse.
A YouTube video of the incident had reached more than 1.2 million views by Monday night, bearing a caption saying Whitworth's dogs were in cages — a claim unsubstantiated by any source. Recent commenters on the Missourian's and the Columbia Daily Tribune's websites have posted Deputy Police Chief Tom Dresner's home address as part of a planned protest.
Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jessie Haden said Thursday that two officers involved in the SWAT incident had temporarily moved their families because of the outcry.
During the open comment portion of Monday night's meeting, Greg Williams — who told the council about a similar raid he'd suffered in 2004 — talked about being recently featured in a Tribune article and believed information from a supposedly sealed juvenile record had found its way into the site's comments section.
But beside the influence of the Web, others are still pushing for change the old-fashioned way.
Among a smattering a protesters holding anti-SWAT placards, Lindsi Tobkin, 27, and Donald Warren, 32, handed out fliers in front of City Hall announcing a meeting of the "CoMo Citizens" at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Columbia Public Library. They said the group, newly-minted, was aimed at maintaining oversight of local law enforcement.
As for Henry and Pearson, they swore diligence.
"We will be back until we see that action will be taken," Pearson said.