Police chief against putting SWAT changes in ordinance

Burton suggests notification requirement instead
Tuesday, October 5, 2010 | 6:39 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA— Police Chief Ken Burton has enacted several changes in SWAT team policy since a February raid on Kinloch Court, but he doesn't think those changes should be made permanent in the form of an ordinance.

On Monday, the City Council discussed a report from City Attorney Fred Boeckmann that said if it wanted to make Burton's SWAT changes permanent, it might consider codifying them. Burton, however, said that would add an extra level of unnecessary stress on the SWAT team.

“I just don’t want to put it on the officers who are required to make those quick decisions in the field worrying about violating an ordinance as long as they’re trying their best to do their best," Burton said.

“It’s my opinion that passing such an ordinance puts an additional burden on them that they shouldn’t have to have on them when they’re trying to make these decisions,” Burton said.

Burton enacted several changes in SWAT policy after the raid in February, in which officers serving a search warrant for narcotics killed one dog and wounded another. A 7-year-old child was in the home during the raid, which produced a small amount of marijuana and prompted a lawsuit by Jonathan Whitworth and his family.

As an alternative, Burton suggested the council could pass an ordinance requiring the police chief to notify the City Council or the city manager in writing if he makes significant changes to department policies.

“If I decide to change these policies substantially, that I be required to come to the council and let you know beforehand, I think it’ll accomplish the same thing," Burton said.

Burton also said that officers need to have the flexibility to break policies when making difficult decisions.

“I have a belief that police officers in the field can violate our policy and still be right,” Burton said. “It’s that kind of job.”

Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said he believes Burton’s proposal can work. “His suggestion is going to make it impossible for him to change (the rules) without the council being aware.”

Thornhill also said he understands that officers have to make tough decisions under time-sensitive deadlines. “There is a reason why that you don’t see many with specific policies written as ordinances,” Thornhill said.

In the end, the council voted to refer Burton's suggestion to the Citizen Police Review Board. Thornhill said he was grateful for the police chief's input. 

“We appreciate the fact that the chief acknowledges that this is an important issue.”

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