Our Citizens Police Review Board was created a little more than two years ago to provide, in the words of the ordinance, “an external and independent process for review of actual or perceived police misconduct, thereby increasing police accountability to the community and community trust in the police.”
This week, in a series of votes on proposed changes to that ordinance, board members reaffirmed their independence. It was a performance worthy of applause.
Applause was in short supply the week before at a public hearing and work session. Board members heard criticism from left and right.
A series of speakers from the public urged the board to keep its distance from the police, often with the suggestion — and sometimes the outright charge — that it has been overly deferential to the police whose work it monitors.
David Tyson Smith, a lawyer involved in the campaign that led to the board’s creation, warned that “to change the ordinance would be to undermine Columbia democracy.”
Equally insistent on the importance of maintaining independence were Mary Ratliff, head of the local and state NAACP chapters, and John Schultz of the Libertarian Party.
Steve Calloway, a former Columbia School Board vice president and current president of the Minority Men’s Network, said the board should represent the “disenfranchised” and must itself remain open and accountable.
Of the eight board members present that evening, two are retired cops and one a former prosecutor. When I later looked at the annual report, I learned that of the 12 complaints adjudicated so far, seven decisions upheld the conclusion of the police chief, three were dismissed for various reasons and in only two cases has the board disagreed with the chief.
So what objections could the police possibly have? If you’ve followed the ongoing Missourian coverage, you know the answer: plenty.
From the very definition of misconduct to the issue of who has standing to file a complaint to the admittedly ticklish problem of open versus closed investigative records, Chief Ken Burton and the Columbia Police Officers Association found fault.
The chief grumbled that the board has conducted “mini-trials” and allowed too many complaints from people not directly involved in incidents.
CPOA's representatives worried about too much openness. One officer said, “We don’t feel like we’re always treated fairly.” The board has been too responsive to “a vocal minority,” she objected.
After a week of digesting all that, the board met Tuesday to respond to seven specific points of disagreement identified by Mayor Bob McDavid after he reviewed conflicting reports from the board and the police department.
It was a low-key meeting — so low that we listeners often had trouble making out what board members were saying to each other. Whatever it was, there were few signs of disagreement.
Unanimously, board members agreed on a definition of misconduct broader than the one preferred by the police.
Unanimously, they agreed to seek no change in the rules that govern who can file an appeal from a ruling by the chief. (In fact, after the very first case was inspired by a Californian, the City Council voted to restrict appeal to people involved in an incident, their representatives or Boone County residents generally. The police want to eliminate the latter category.)
Unanimously, they rejected any requirement of more training for board members.
Unanimously, they called for regular reports from the police internal affairs unit summarizing complaints and use of force investigations.
You see the pattern.
The only real split came on the issue of allowing closed meetings of the board. The vote was 5-3 in favor of allowing two-thirds of the board to vote to close a meeting. Voting to keep all sessions open were Betty Wilson, an attorney; retired deputy police chief Carroll Highbarger; and board chairman James Martin.
My bias is always in favor of openness, but I was almost persuaded by the hypothetical situations requiring closure. They included a possible complainant who had been sexually abused, a case involving a minor or one in which the officer was working undercover.
The board’s recommendations will now go to the mayor and council. Chief Burton and his officers aren’t likely to be pleased.
A police review board that isn’t external and independent wouldn’t be worth having. Ours remains, as it was intended to be, both.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.