COLUMBIA — Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton, who says he likes to talk to people who sometimes disagree with him, did just that at a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union on Friday night.
In the dim light of The Blue Note, Burton, members of the ACLU and the public had a congenial discussion, even though the local ACLU chapter has objected to Police Department policies in the past.
Burton spoke about several controversial issues regarding the Police Department, spending most of his time answering questions about the department's policy on Taser use.
Dan Viets, an ACLU board member, said one of his major concerns is the use of Tasers as a means to gain compliance from a subject.
"That's what happened to Stan Harlan up in Moberly," Viets said, referring to the man who was killed in 2008 after being stunned by a Taser by police during a traffic stop. "He wasn't putting his hands behind his back fast enough."
Burton said his department uses the Taser to gain "pain compliance" but on a very limited basis and only when the Taser is in stun mode. In that mode, Burton said, the prongs do not deploy, and the officer must physically touch the device to the subject.
Burton said less electricity is emitted from the device in that mode, and he considers that to be an acceptable use of force in limited situations. He said full deployment of the Taser is used only in cases when an officer or another person is in imminent danger.
Burton said he sees the Taser as a purely defensive weapon that is never used in lieu of a firearm. "You don't bring a Taser to a gunfight," he said.
Even if Taser use is banned by the voters as proposed in Proposition 2 on the Nov. 2 ballot, Burton said he will not view that as a vote against the Police Department.
"I recognize where the police get their authority to use force, and that's from the citizens," he said.
Wearing a Texas A&M sweatshirt, Burton looked comfortable answering questions and accepting criticism from the crowd.
Burton also discussed his policy on forcible entries to serve search warrants. In February, SWAT members forcibly entered a home on Kinloch Court, where they shot and killed the resident's dog. Burton said his policy has changed, and all forcible entries must now be approved by him.
"The chances of a Kinloch happening again are nil," he said. "I'm giving you my word that the (new) rules we have regarding dynamic entries will stay in place." He said, if anything, they will become more stringent.
In thanking Burton, Viets said, "There will always be tension between safety and liberty," acknowledging the occasional tension between law enforcement and the ACLU.
Racial profiling was another hot-button topic addressed at the meeting. Viets said the disparity between the number of searches conducted on African-Americans as opposed to people of European descent was unacceptably high.
Burton said he is actively working with a department analyst to determine where profiling is a problem and how he can try to solve it.
Viets also asked about the use of automatic license plate readers. These devices, already in use in police cars in Columbia, read license plates in a multi-directional pattern and alert the patrol officer if any plate numbers match those registered to wanted criminals.
Burton said that, although the readers record every license plate they scan and those numbers are stored in a database for 60 days, law-abiding people needn't worry about invasive surveillance.
"The only way they are used is to identify those who are wanted," Burton said.
After Burton's presentation, both he and Viets expressed pleasure at the meeting's amiable, open tone, and Burton said he would be willing to attend another gathering in the future.