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COLUMN: Launch of Citizens Police Review Board off to rocky start

Thursday, July 15, 2010 | 1:11 p.m. CDT

The squeamish have long been advised to avert their eyes from the process of making either sausages or laws. I learned Wednesday night that the launching of a police review board isn't a particularly edifying activity to watch, either.

I attended the meeting of our new Citizens Police Review Board expecting to hear a discussion of the complaint filed by a California activist about police actions in serving a search warrant last February – a case that's become locally famous, or infamous. Most members of the board appeared eager to discuss, but not all.

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No sooner had the meeting been called to order than Susan Smith, one of the board's two lawyers, delivered a monolog complete with citations of laws and the Constitution intended to demonstrate that Ed Rosenthal lacked legal standing to involve himself in the case because he has no known Columbia connections. Therefore, she argued, the board shouldn't take up his appeal of Chief Ken Burton's decision to exonerate his officers.

Confusion and conflict ensued. A couple of members agreed that some tie to a case should be required of complainants. One noted that in other cities that's the rule. Others disagreed. Finally, City Attorney Fred Boeckman intervened to point out that the ordinance creating the board set no restrictions. Ms. Smith's citations were irrelevant, he said. Under the ordinance, he concluded, "You have a duty to hear this." There was applause from the small audience.

Ms. Smith didn't give up easily. What might be the ramifications, including possible monetary obligations, of the board's possible decision? No answer was forthcoming.

Betty Wilson, the board's other lawyer, recalled that at the previous meeting member Steve Alexander had suggested that procedures should be established in advance of substantive discussion. That hasn't happened, she complained. "What kind of body are we?" she asked, I thought a little plaintively.

Embattled Chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez replied that she had e-mailed a set of procedures to all members.

"But then you told us to ignore those," Ms. Wilson countered. Not so, said Ms. Locurto-Martinez, who then read them aloud.

Professor Alexander, an MU biologist, was visibly frustrated. "The people of the city expect us to deal with this issue, not just quibble about it," he said.

The quibbling continued. Ms. Smith, her voice rising, wanted to ask the City Council to clarify her pet issue, that of standing. Boeckman, a veteran of such requests, observed that the council would probably ask the board for a recommendation. Eventually, members reached apparent agreement that a subcommittee should grapple with the problem of who can bring matters to the board.

As the Missourian reported Thursday, there followed a series of questions to Chief Burton, a summary by him of the current status of his department and changes he's making and several comments from citizens — mainly critical of the police, marijuana laws or both. The board eventually set a special meeting for Aug. 4 to really discuss the February incident.

That's likely to be a pro forma discussion, as member Steve Weinberg suggested, because Chief Burton has already announced sweeping changes in procedure intended to prevent any repeat of the affair under scrutiny.

At the end of Wednesday's meeting came another hint that the board, if not the Police Department, is in turmoil. The question was who should attend a national conference. Ms. LoCurto-Martinez and member James Martin were proposed. Member Mary Bixby objected. Prof. Alexander said he thought the attendees had already been picked. The motion carried 4-3, only after Mr. Martin was assured he could vote to send himself.

Afterward, I spoke with Dan Viets, the ACLU attorney whose client has another complaint headed for the board. After we agreed that the board is having a rocky start, he said something else I agreed with. "I'm just glad we finally have a review board."

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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