COLUMBIA — Though they say there's no rift, the Columbia police and the Citizens Police Review Board will soon tell City Council what they think can be done to improve their relationship.
At the end of the July 5 council meeting, Mayor Bob McDavid asked the police and the board to submit reports on the "current status" of the review board along with recommendations for what council should do about the board.
James Martin, the board's current vice chair, will take over as chair at the end of July. He has been associated with the board since its inception. When the City Council picked the eight members of the first review board in November 2009, Martin received six council votes, which meant he would serve four years on the board.
Before he joined the board, Martin worked with the public defender’s office. He served three years as a district public defender in Southeast Missouri and seven years as an attorney at the Public Defender’s office in Columbia before he retired in 2000.
He said he had been interested in working for the community as a volunteer since retirement and applied for the review board’s membership to serve his community.
The review board's vice chair, James Martin, who is set to take over the chairmanship of the board from Ellen LoCurto-Martinez on July 26, said two to three board members were meeting at City Hall today to finalize the report. LoCurto-Martinez resigned earlier this month and is moving away from Columbia because her husband is starting a job as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee.
Police Chief Ken Burton said he is likely to submit his department's report by the end of this week.
It was also at the July 5 Council meeting that McDavid expressed his views about the relationship between the board and the police. He termed it "too adversarial" and "too acrimonious," based on his reading about it in the Columbia Daily Tribune. He said he would like to see a better collaboration.
LoCurto-Martinez, however, said there is no major problem between the board and police.
“It is probably normal for some tension to exist whenever two agencies are working together,” she said. “But the basic relations are fine.”
Burton said he didn’t necessarily agree with the mayor’s opinion either.
“(The board and the department) see things differently, but we are far from adversarial,” he said. “There are some things we disagree on, and with the council’s assistance we hope to get those things sorted out.”
In the fine print
The Citizens Police Review Board was established through the passage of an ordinance by the City Council in July 2009. It took almost 16 months of lengthy deliberations from a citizen oversight committee to come up with the ordinance.
Now, two years later, the police department feels a little fine-tuning is in order.
“I think a lot of the problems with the ordinance have to do with wording and understanding, and making sure the Police Department and the board are using the same terminologies,” Burton said.
Burton recently proposed changes to the review board ordinance. In a May 14 memo addressed to LoCurto-Martinez, City Manager Mike Matthes, the mayor and City Council members, Burton described eight problems with the ordinance and recommended changes to improve the board’s review process, including:
- Adding a specific definition of police misconduct.
Burton’s memo states that there is no definition of misconduct in the ordinance right now, and it should be amended to define misconduct as “excessive use of force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, or use of offensive language, including, but not limited to, slurs relating to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability.” This definition is taken from the Missouri Revised Statutes (RSMo 590.653.2), according to the memo.
- Setting specific standards of training for board members and requiring quarterly ride-alongs with police officers.
The proposal aims to include a specific list of training topics in the ordinance. The list is based on topics suggested by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
- Limiting potential complainants "to those who were personally involved in the incident that the complaint stems from, and/or the parent/legal guardian of any person under the age of 17 who was personally involved in the incident the complaint stems from."
- Reducing the time period to file a complaint from one year to 90 days except for special circumstances with good cause.
This recommendation has been made because the retention period of "untagged audio/video" evidence is 60 days, Burton said. Untagged evidence includes videos recorded from officer helmets and dashboard cameras in police cars.
Burton said he wasn’t bent on reducing the time period, and if a recommendation to enhance the department’s capability to store evidence comes before the council, he might support it. But he said the cost of such enhanced storage will also have to be considered.
- Allowing the board to close to the public interviews or statements when requested by either party in the complaint, or upon a two-thirds majority vote of the board.
- Using the same categories of findings as those used by the Internal Affairs Unit of the police to maintain consistency. The unit uses the following categories: sustained, not sustained, exonerated and unfounded.
- Eliminating the provision that requires all records relevant to the complaint to be considered open records.
When a complaint is filed to the review board, police personnel files pertaining to the complaint and closed criminal records of the citizens involved are automatically considered open records. Burton wants to reverse this. He doesn't object to the review board's right to view closed records; he just doesn't want those records to be open to the public.
- Allowing the board to meet in closed session when requested by the complainant, involved police officers, or upon a two-thirds majority vote of the board members.
Currently, the ordinance prohibits the board to meet in closed session except if the subject matter cannot be discussed in an open meeting under the state or federal law, or if it concerns disclosure of the identity of an undercover officer.
Burton said the proposed changes were inspired by ideas he got from some recent training at the Kansas City Office of Community Complaints. The Office of Community Complaints was formed in 1969, and is a “non-police, civilian oversight agency” under the authority of the Board of Police Commissioners, according to its webpage.
Burton said Columbia could look to Kansas City for improving the working process of its review board.
“What’s more important is that they have been doing this for a long time,” he said. “They have already made the errors we might make here, so we should learn from them.”
While LoCurto-Martinez — who also attended the Kansas City training — agreed that there’s always room for improvement in a system as long as the organizational goals are kept in mind, she said comparing the Kansas City system with Columbia’s review board was like “comparing apples and oranges.”
“The Kansas City structure is totally different from the one we have here,” she said. “We couldn’t build on it without developing a separate department in the city of Columbia.”
More dissension ahead
But LoCurto-Martinez said the training changes police are proposing are more extensive than need be and that board members would have trouble finding the time to participate. She pointed out that members were already trained by the police department on cases and simulated scenarios.
The expense of the training should also be kept in mind, Martin said. He said when the review board was established, it didn’t have a budget but later received some funding for training. Now would be a difficult time for the existing board members to go through more training, he said.
“I think we need to take it slowly,” he said. “We could prioritize, and pick and choose the trainings which should be on the top of the list.”
As for who can complain to the board, LoCurto-Martinez said the council has already changed that clause in the ordinance once to narrow potential complainants to Boone County residents only.
That change was prompted by the review board’s hearing of an appeal made by a California-based marijuana activist regarding a February 2010 SWAT raid conducted in Columbia on suspicion of marijuana, which resulted in the fatal shooting of a dog.
LoCurto-Martinez said she felt reduction in time to file a complaint was also incorrect and that people should be given time to think before they file their complaints.
“The limitation is because of the police department's computer storage,” she said. “They need to increase their computer storage capacity.”
Martin said his personal view is that the board's sessions should not be closed. But LoCurto-Martinez said the board was already considering this proposal and is looking at other review boards' policies on closed sessions. She said the board would reach a decision on this question later this month.
Despite their differences with the police, Martin said the board is committed to working with the police for the community.
“We have to work with the differences,” he said. “We are obligated to the citizens of this community.”