Marijuana-law reform activists to appeal Citizens Police Review Board ruling

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 | 7:45 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 1, 2010

COLUMBIA — A California-based group wants to appeal the ruling on its complaint against the Columbia Police Department, according to a letter received by the city.

City Manager Bill Watkins received a letter Monday from a marijuana-law reform group, Green Aid, seeking to appeal a decision by the Citizens Police Review Board. The decision cleared a Columbia Police Department SWAT team of any wrongdoing in a controversial drug raid earlier this year. 

The initial complaint stemmed from a YouTube video of the SWAT team's raid on a Columbia home in February. In the complaint, Green Aid argued that officers acted improperly.

In the video, the SWAT team is shown raiding the home of Jonathan Whitworth, whom police suspected of dealing marijuana. The team shot and killed one of Whitworth’s dogs, and his wife and child were present during the raid.


The police did not find evidence that Whitworth was dealing drugs.


After an internal investigation into the incident, Police Chief Ken Burton found that the SWAT team acted appropriately.


"Were the actions of the officers on scene appropriate, based on policy, law and what they knew? Yes," Burton said in May.

Green Aid appealed that decision, and the issue came before the review board. The board rejected the Green Aid appeal in August by a 4-3 vote.


Green Aid continued the appeals process by sending a formal written statement to the city manager. The letter, written by Green Aid media coordinator Angela Bacca, outlined 12 reasons for the appeal.


According to the letter, Green Aid would like to see a private investigation into the SWAT team officers. 


“(The city manager) should investigate and set up with a private investigative team,” said Ed Rosenthal, a member of Green Aid. “It’s cops protecting cops.”


In the letter, Green Aid argued that they were “illegally barred from addressing the board during the hearing” and that they were not contacted by the review board to discuss their appeal.


Ellen LoCurto-Martinez, chairwoman of the review board, said the board was not legally obligated to contact Green Aid.


The city ordinance establishing the review board reads, “The board, as part of the review of an appeal, may interview and hear comments from witnesses to the incident under investigation. The board shall not allow comments by the general public as part of the review."


“The key word there is ‘may’,” LoCurto-Martinez said. “We don’t have to hear any comments; we don’t have to have witnesses come; we can make a decision based on the information we have.”


Green Aid also said the “CRPB has a bias to the police department” because one of the board members — Susan Smith, a teacher at Columbia College — had two of the SWAT team members in class.


Smith said she did teach law enforcement classes online at Columbia College but doesn't remember if the two SWAT team members were students. However, she did not meet any of the online students face to face.


“I can’t say if I remember who I’ve had,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t have even known.”


“It’s kind of a stretch saying that the whole board is biased to the police department,” LoCurto-Martinez saud.


The complaint filed by Rosenthal, who lives in California, triggered an amendment to the review board ordinance restricting who can file a complaint. Instead of allowing anyone to file a complaint, the only people who can file complaints are alleged victims; their family, friends or attorneys; witnesses of alleged misconduct; and any resident of Boone County. The former ordinance still applies to the Green Aid complaint, so the city must respond to the appeal.

At this time, the city has not chosen a course of action to honor the appeal. 


“We will continue to appeal to the next authorities until we see results,” Bacca said.  

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