Over time, Columbia has been the recipient of numerous accolades for being one of the best small cities in which to retire or reside with its cost of living, educational opportunities, health care facilities and the other amenities. Much of the allure is, of course, due to MU, Stephens and Columbia colleges and the city's location halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City on a major highway.
Not all publicity has been of the favorable variety — some of us remember when MU was thought to rank among the top "party schools" in the nation. Rumor had it that MU was not considered in the rating of beer-drinking colleges because "professionalism" forfeited amateur status. Nevertheless, Columbia and its facilities have continued to enjoy a superior reputation as a place to stop.
However, into each idyllic setting, a little rain must fall. MU's reputation took a hit with the unfortunate strewing of cotton balls on the Black Culture Center's lawn. A video of the flawed SWAT raid of Feb. 11 focused national attention on our fair city from politically and socially oriented groups, bloggers and the usual responsibility-challenged and information-lacking second guessers who emerge from the woodwork on cue.
The facts are not disputed — pursuant to an 8-day-old probable cause warrant alleging a sizable amount of marijuana, a SWAT raid was executed on a Columbia residence. Instead of the expected stash, a small amount of marijuana and some drug paraphernalia was seized — the ensuing uproar over the team's shooting of two dogs (one fatally) and the presence of a child during the raid intensified.
Thanks to YouTube, the video became a nationwide cause celebre. Animal rights groups, organizations for legalizing marijuana, civil libertarian activists and the always-present anti-police factions voiced objections loudly and clearly.
Urging calm and objectivity until the facts could be sorted out and presented, Police Chief Ken Burton and Mayor Bob McDavid put a professional and logical face on this volatile issue. Admitting upfront that the raid appeared to be executed as a result of a flawed process, Burton promised a quick and thorough investigation with subsequent corrective action.
This happened as promised. For example, except under the most exigent circumstances, SWAT and narcotics units are now limited to an eight-hour window in executing search warrants — the residence or facility must also remain under constant surveillance prior to execution of the warrant.
Equally significant, the decision authorizing the search is no longer delegated to the narcotics or SWAT leader but rather is elevated to the responsibility of a police captain. The presence of children will, in most cases, obviate dynamic entry; nevertheless, for the safety of the officers concerned, the policy for dealing with dogs has not changed.
Policemen, like the rest of us, are subject to "Murphy's Law" — whatever can go wrong will. Officers are not perfect, being subject to human frailties, and some will lack the temperament and judgment necessary to be members of SWAT units. Nevertheless, and particularly now with the leadership shown by Burton, we may be confident that the Police Department's training will continue to evaluate performance to put the best-qualified on our streets to preserve and protect.
I believe the decision to convene a meeting of the Citizens Police Review Board for residents to voice opinions on this incident and police policies in general was terrible. While right of assembly is not questioned, providing an open forum for individuals and groups to second guess and criticize the police force is about as reasonable as serving alcoholic beverages at an ALANON meeting. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Burton was spared appearance.
When the responsible official — in this case Burton — observes flawed procedures and takes immediate corrective action, should not the revisions be given a chance to succeed or fail before those with a particular ax to grind are assembled to vent over perceived or imagined injustices by the police? History and human nature being constant, the opinions offered will, for the most part, be of a negative rather than objective bent.
The Citizens Police Review Board's charter does not include the making of policy but rather the assembling to determine culpability and adjudicating complaints filed. The review board should so adhere.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.