COLUMBIA — Within two weeks, Columbia citizens will get a chance to voice their opinions about the role of the Citizens Police Review Board.
At a meeting Wednesday night, the review board announced it will hold a special public hearing on Aug. 24 to discuss Police Chief Ken Burton's proposed changes to the board’s ordinance.
Citizens will be able to comment on the proposed changes, and the board invited police officers to participate in the discussion. Based on public comments, the board will submit a new report to the City Council to explain its position on the proposed changes.
At the council's meeting on Aug. 1, Mayor Bob McDavid highlighted seven key differences of opinion between the board and the Police Department regarding recommendations for changes to the board’s ordinance. McDavid had made a request for the recommendations in July.
The upcoming special session was called in response to McDavid’s informal two-month deadline for the board and police to sort out those differences.
If the board and police are unable to work out their differences within two months, the council will step in to decide whether to revise the board’s ordinance.
During the public comments Wednesday night, members of the public minced no words over the changes proposed to the board’s ordinance by the police chief.
Columbia attorney David T. Smith said the chief’s proposed changes are “designed to weaken and undermine the board,” and the board will become less effective if those changes are accepted. Smith was a member of the original advisory committee and subcommittee that recommended establishing a review board and drafted its ordinance, respectively.
He said it was the review board’s job to hold the police accountable and recommend policies to the police, not the other way around.
“Your responsibility is to the citizens, not to the police department,” Smith said, addressing members of the board.
Skepticism about the motivation behind the chief's proposed changes was obvious in the citizens’ comments, and most of them did not want the board to negotiate.
One citizen, Mitchell Richards, said accepting the changes would be “a slap in the face of the reason to consolidate the board.” Referring to the recommendation of more training for board members in the chief’s report, Richards said the police would recommend more training to the board "every time the board makes a decision that goes against them."
Responding to the public comments, board vice chair Stephen Alexander said there was respect between police and the board, and it would hurt the board more if it didn’t engage in a conversation with the police about the proposed changes.
Board member Carroll Highbarger said if the board members do not sit down with the police, they will be considered "not nice."
Columbia resident Alva Scott, who accused Columbia police officers of using unnecessary force against her during an incident at Columbia Mall in 2006, also spoke during the meeting. The incident happened before the review board was established in 2009. Although charges against Scott were dropped later, an internal review by the Columbia Police Department cleared the police officers involved in the incident.
Scott said police officers kept following her after the charges were dropped, and they even went to her mother’s house while she was there. She said she just wanted to let the board know how much ordinary citizens need the board.
On Wednesday, the board also unanimously adopted the police-citizen mediation program it had drafted and sent to the council late last month.
The mediation program proposed by the board would be available as a first option for complainants. Board member Susan Smith said it will help resolve quickly some of the minor incidents between police and residents.
The mediator, who will be chosen by the board, will only facilitate the settlement of an argument. In case an agreement cannot be reached, the complainant will retain the right to go through the regular appeals process through the Professional Standards Division of the police department. The mediation process would remain private between the parties involved.
“What happens in mediation doesn’t go public,” board member Betty Wilson said. “That’s another good thing.”
The mediator will also be required to conduct training for other people in Columbia who want to become mediators.
Susan Smith said she and Wilson will sit down with the police department to go over the details of the mediation program.
Wednesday's meeting was the last for board member John H. McClure. McClure is moving to Chicago to serve as the dean of adult education at Kennedy-King College.
McClure was director of the English language program at Douglass High School and the Adult Learning Center, where he taught GED classes, for six years. He said he had applied for the review board after meeting students who didn’t have positive experiences with the police. He said he saw the review board as the voice of the citizenry.
McClure said citizen participation would make the board more attuned to the community’s needs.
“If you want the board to be responsive, you have to do your part as well,” he said.