COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department has concluded its investigation into a Feb. 11 SWAT raid that has gained worldwide attention over the Internet, Chief Ken Burton said in a Thursday afternoon news conference.
"Were the actions of the officers on scene appropriate, based on policy, law, and what they knew?" Burton asked. "Yes."
The announcement was the result of an internal investigation of the raid, in which police with a search warrant for marijuana entered the home of Jonathan Whitworth* while he, his wife and 7-year-old son were home. The officers shot a pit bull to death, wounded another dog and found paraphernalia and a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. Whitworth eventually was fined $300 for possession of paraphernalia.
Burton's news conference, his third in two weeks on the subject, continued the a familiar pattern in addressing the incident.
On one hand — though contrite about the results of the raid — Burton has shown steady support for the actions of the officers involved; on the other, he has made adjustments to department policy that he said will cause the number of SWAT raids in Columbia to "plummet."
Burton reiterated his stance that the department made some wrong decisions.
"What I know as your chief is that while our SWAT members are well-trained and are held to strict guidelines, we have utilized SWAT routinely in circumstances and situations where we should not," Burton said, referring to the fact that the warrant was served eight days after it was issued and that police did not perform proper surveillance before conducting the raid.
His comments came on the heels of previous announcements about restrictive changes involving SWAT's command structure, speedy warrant execution and increased surveillance before raids.
But Thursday's news conference added a few new wrinkles to the conversation. Burton said that all SWAT officers now will be equipped with $300 helmet cameras and that the department's policies regarding paid informants is now under review. He also was open to the idea of monthly reports on SWAT raids.
He added that a separate investigation is being conducted into an allegation that a police officer told one of Whitworth's neighbors, who had called the station, that the raid was only a "training exercise." Although the internal review is still under way, Burton said it would likely result in a reprimand.
"It's never OK to tell a law-abiding citizen wrong information," Burton said.
Burton, who fielded questions from reporters and citizens alike, ran into a back-and-forth over marijuana laws.
Local attorney and American Civil Liberties Union chapter president Dan Viets attended the news conference and challenged the chief on a 2004 ordinance passed by Columbia voters that says the "enforcement of laws against marijuana shall be among the lower priorities of law enforcement."
Burton said there was a distinction between misdemeanor and felony amounts of possession, but Viets, who helped write the original ordinance, fired back, saying no such distinction existed in the law's language.
At one point, Burton shrugged.
"I'm not sure how to accomplish what the ordinance says," he said.
When it came to the Citizens Police Review Board, the legal ambiguities continued.
Under law, the board can review the result of the department's internal investigations, but Burton doesn't think the board could review an internally initiated investigation. Someone would have to file a complaint, and Burton said no one involved in the incident has done so.
Could anyone file a complaint? Columbia's law only defines a complainant as "a person who files a complaint with the police department against a police officer." Burton wasn't sure people not involved with the incident have a legal standing to file a formal complaint with the department.
Whitworth is still considering filing a complaint or a lawsuit, his attorney Jeff Hilbrenner said during a telephone interview after the news conference.
"The fact that they’ve continued to paint him as a drug dealer is a concern to Mr. Whitworth," Hilbrenner said. Hilbrenner also expressed dismay that the department is releasing "new facts" not contained in the officers' original incident reports.
For instance, during Thursday's news conference Burton defended the department's decision to raid Whitworth's home by saying the outcome would have been different had the department moved faster; Burton cited duffle bags found in the house that "reeked of marijuana."
The duffle bags are mentioned only once in the original report, after an officer searching Whitworth's home said he saw a marijuana pipe in the garage.
"I further observed duffle bags in the attic access of the garage," the officer writes, concluding the report. The duffle bags were not listed among the evidence seized by the department.
A different officer in the report wrote about opening Whitworth's personal safe and smelling "the overwhelming odor of fresh high-grade marijuana," which Burton also cited at the news conference.
Thursday's announcement suggested that most of the department's response to the Whitworth incident had reached an informal end. The City Council, however, has requested a formal report on the raid, and the Citizens Police Review Board has asked that Burton give a presentation on SWAT policy in June.
"I think I've moved to the point where I've done all I can and can't go any further," Burton said of the policy changes, which he previously has called "unpopular" among some in the department.
"I've not been easy on them," Burton added, becoming emotional as he reflected on the changes he's made as chief. The room fell silent as he came close to tears. "I'm not easy to work for."