There oft comes a time in the pursuit of lofty goals fashioned by well-meaning and civic-minded government-appointed panels that the governing body must bite the bullet and admit the consequences so far outpace the benefits that the creation be scrapped as quickly and quietly as possible. This is the fate that should befall the Citizens Police Review Board.
In response to a 2006 complaint lodged against the Columbia Police Department, Mayor Darwin Hindman appointed a Citizen Police Oversight Committee the following year because of concerns of misconduct and malpractice in Columbia and across the nation, allegedly targeting minorities. The organizations supporting the oversight panel were familiar — the NAACP, Minority Men's Network, Boone County Concerned Citizens and the ACLU.
Recognizing the possibility of patterns of abusive or otherwise wrongful acts, the Police Department overhauled its internal review process in order to facilitate public scrutiny. The resultant act provided monthly and quarterly review of the number and types of complaints, investigative findings and action taken — a transparency that opened the department's books for all to see.
Nevertheless, on June 27, 2008, the 13-member Oversight Committee voted unanimously to recommend external oversight of the Columbia Police Department. On July 20, 2009, the Columbia City Council established the Citizens Police Review Board, approving the ordinance by unanimous vote. The council was to select eight of the board's members, and the ninth was to be chosen by the Human Rights Commission.
While it is clear that the review board has not covered itself with glory or even given the appearance of being well organized and capable of performing the duties of its charter in its first year, that is to be expected of fledgling organizations with little historical precedent as a guide. From its review of the ill-fated Feb. 11, 2010, SWAT raid to the conclusion that Columbia Police Officer Nathan Turner acted with unreasonable force and was guilty of misconduct in a nightclub incident in December 2009, the decisions have provoked controversy.
The most damaging is the board's finding Officer Turner guilty of misconduct in employing physical force against Derek Billups, a decision at odds with Columbia Police Department guidelines. The board may not arbitrarily establish a set of guidelines that differs from current regulations — police officers need a clearly established set of guidelines to follow.
The consequences should be obvious to all. While Police Chief Ken Burton has sought actively to dispel the existence of an adversarial relationship between the department and the review board, the message to the individual police officer is hardly one of mutual trust. Morale is a positive but also fragile element, particularly among those whose teamwork responsibilities place them in harm's way — that beat cop, patrolman or patrol supervisor expects loyalty and trust to be a two-way street.
I am not going to dwell on either the imperfections of the Citizens Police Review Board or those inherent in any law enforcement organization. Instead, I will merely reiterate my previous opinion, one in which I was joined by City Manager Bill Watkins — the review board is an unnecessary and potentially damaging entity.
I do understand the requirement for civilian oversight of a city's police department — we see a similar need for civilian review of the U.S. military, provided by the president as commander-in-chief and by the Defense Department. Are not the mayor, the City Council, the city manager and the ever-vigilant free press sufficient oversight of the Columbia Police Department's internal review process?
Regulatory supervision should be complementary rather than adversarial to law enforcement. This guarantees the policeman or policewoman need not be constrained in performance of duties by the specter of 20/20 hindsight by otherwise well-meaning citizens who have never walked in those shoes or the apprehension that some arbitrary racial quota be exceeded.
And, in fairness, I include those organizations described in the second paragraph, along with Grass Roots Organizing and People for a Taser-Free Columbia, as playing important oversight roles. Although rarely reasonable and often annoying in their approach, these special-interest groups pose questions that may not be ignored but must be addressed by both government and the media.
Consequently, the City Council has demonstrated an age-old maxim: When you fix something that ain't broke, the ensuing cure creates a more serious malady than existed before. Before the review board creates an irreparable schism between itself and an efficient and well-led Police Department, let's allow it to fade quietly into the sunset.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.