COLUMBIA — At the Citizens Police Review Board meeting Wednesday evening, Police Chief Ken Burton formally presented the policy changes he's made to the department's SWAT team.
Burton's changes had previously been announced in the press conferences that followed the Feb. 11 raid of a Columbia man's home in which police fatally shot one dog but failed to discover more than a misdemeanor amount of marijuana.
During the meeting, held in front of an audience of a few dozen at the City Council chambers in City Hall, Burton called February’s incident a "blessing." He said it has given the department an opportunity to look inward for ways to improve.
"I can't sit here and tell you we'll never shoot another dog," Burton said. But he told the board that the department is going to put much more consideration into conducting raids when children and animals are present, calling those the biggest changes to the SWAT policy.
Burton reiterated adjustments in the department's use of search warrants. As previously announced, Burton said the suspects of interest must be under constant surveillance and that the raids would be executed "immediately."
Burton said there are no current policies in place regarding how to handle animals, but he said he has asked Deputy Police Chief Tom Dresner to look at the policies of other agencies across the country.
Officers must document every use of force, Burton told the board. Burton said this mandate is a significant change, but it is not necessarily popular among officers. When asked for clarification, Burton said the policy is unpopular because it increases each officers' workload and officers might fear that the public does not support them.
Burton also repeated the department's new policy, previously announced during the City Council Retreat last Friday, that Tasers can only be used in defense of an officer or a third person.
Board member Steve Weinberg asked Burton if he thought Tasers have benefited the Police Department since being introduced.
"I can't say Tasers have done us good or done us bad," Burton answered. "They're a tool that, when used properly, officers should have."
"It's very possible there are officers on the Columbia Police Department that profile," Burton said, but he thought the issue was too complex to blame solely on racial biases.
Burton said police officers must recognize they are "products of their environment" and overcome their biases while wearing the badge.
Later in the meeting, Burton announced that a customer satisfaction survey will be put on the department's website within the month. He said this is another outlet for people to provide feedback to the department.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Mitchell Richards of Keep Columbia Free told Burton, "I applaud you on the recommendations and the efforts you have made thus far," and he said he hoped Burton would continue to build the department's relationship with the community.
In an interview, Burton said tonight's meeting was "productive" and offered a chance to move past February's incident to talk about the future.
"We're not ever going to be perfect," Burton said. "We're going to make mistakes. When we do, we're going to acknowledge them and then we're going to fix it, and we'll get it right the next time."