COLUMBIA — In a crowded living room a half-mile west of Columbia police headquarters, Matthew Akins and his crew watched videos of people from all over the city talk about their problems with local police.
In the far corner of the dimly lit room lay a black bag containing Akins' sidekick — a Sony HD camera that has become crucial to the ongoing dialogue.
The group watched, many for a second or third time, as black youths from Columbia's Georgetown Subdivision talked to the camera about a police raid that began with "guns pointed at kids' heads."
They watched, along with a half-interested dog named Mary Jane, as a black man named Marlon Jordan walked into the lobby of the police station on East Walnut, wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan hood.
They watched Akins on video reciting statutes and legalese back to stunned officers with a vocabulary that was half-street, half-law office.
Akins also watched himself intently. He and the loose affiliation of mainly white, college-age men and women watching the videos are known as the Citizens for Justice, a technology-based "interactive community resource" for Columbia, born of Akins' own frustrations with several local police officers.
A visit to Citizens for Justice's YouTube page shows nearly 70 videos posted since April of this year — some grainy and badly shot, some well-planned and tightly edited — but all addressing issues concerning the Police Department. Almost all were shot by Akins or a Citizens for Justice volunteer.
The impulse for all of this stemmed from a conversation Akins had with a police officer during a traffic stop more than a year ago.
Since the incident, Citizens for Justice has become, like Akins himself, something much deeper and more complex. Although funds are limited and the volunteers sometimes don't show up, Akins has still managed to strike a nerve in this city, fast becoming a resource for people who feel the system of justice doesn't work for them. At the same time, his group has the full attention of a police force unaccustomed to being on the other side of surveillance.
And, according to Akins, this once-small endeavor has taken on a life of its own.
The two-sided man
Just 23, Akins carries himself like a man twice his age – though you wouldn't notice it at first. In an oversized black dress shirt and baggy jeans, with a scraggly half-beard and short, wild hair, he walked onto the patio at Shakespeare's in mid-September carrying the black bag that almost never leaves his side.
His manner of speaking is more south Bronx than central Missouri.
In school, he won all kinds of academic contests, except the spelling bees.
"I'm an awful speller," he said.
He won the Black History Bowl in elementary school, twice. He memorized almanacs and played geography games with his parents. Some of his earliest memories are from age 7, walking from his old house across from West Boulevard Elementary to Gerbes, simply to pick up some "soda pop and a newspaper."
Skip ahead a few years and you'd find him sitting in on City Council meetings, often the youngest person in the room there voluntarily.
And then something changed.
His parents divorced when he was 12, and he began to rebel. It's a period that he doesn't seem to want to describe in detail.
A high school dropout at 16 -years -old, he moved out of his mom's house at 17 and worked odd jobs for a number of years: shoveling snow, doing yard work, vending at music festivals, working construction jobs, selling furniture and appliances, inputting data and working at KFC.
A cursory search of Columbia’s arrest records reveals Akins as a young man accustomed to wearing heavy bracelets.
"I'm not gonna lie to you," Akins said. "I smoke marijuana. ... I've been arrested a few times, and it was always for marijuana possession. I really don't see that as a big deal."
A cause for action
But it wasn't the arrests that pushed him over the edge. Nor were they what made him inseparable from the black bag. It was an incident in June 2010.
He was pulled over "between five to 10 times" in May for things like window tint and bad brake lights, and he was getting annoyed. Then, according to Akins, an officer stopped him in early June for making an illegal turn but ended up searching his car for 45 minutes at the busy intersection of Ninth and Cherry streets.
Akins and his two passengers sat handcuffed on the curb, "a spectacle for everyone who drives by," he said.
"I asked (the officer), 'Is this legal?'" Akins recalled, the memory still apparently vivid. "What's the protocol for this situation?"
In short, the officer told him that if he wanted to, he could get away with murdering Akins, simply because Akins was carrying a rifle in the car. The rifle was legally registered.
"Situations like that," Akins said. "That's kinda what cemented it."
"At that point I got the idea," he said. "If you go on rate-a-cop.com or something, you can see the names of the officers, and you can rate your interactions with them, but there's no information about them."
He spoke quickly.
"So I thought, 'Well, obviously I'm from here, I care about the community, I'm a citizen, I'm a taxpayer and I'm not pleased with the way certain police are conducting themselves. So what can stop a police?'" he asked, rhetorically. "The internal investigations never really amount to much. It never really seems like it makes a difference."
But the one thing that does make a difference, according to Akins, is when local news outlets, like the Missourian or the Tribune, expose police officers who have abused their power.
"So I figured … what if I could put together something more in-depth, where people could go see everything that this officer's been involved in?'"
This idea resulted in an online database of 160-or-so Columbia police officers — their names, their photos (when available) and whether or not they've been disciplined in the past. Akins had to comb through thousands of articles online, including those of the Missourian, the Tribune and the city's website to get it done.
It took him more than a year.
Through this tedious task, Akins learned about the Missouri Sunshine Law, the state statute that requires regulatory agencies' meetings, decisions and records to be open to the public.
It's a law that Akins now relies upon almost every time he encounters a police officer.
"We'll send in a Sunshine request," Akins says to the camera at the end of many of his taped interactions, meaning he'll formally request more information about whatever incident he's investigating.
The law is just one of the many tools he has added to his growing arsenal for dealing with what he considers to be a system that sometimes harbors "bullies" who take too many liberties in the name of the force.
Akins makes it clear that he holds no resentment toward police in general. His great-grandfather was a Kansas City police officer during the Great Depression, he said.
"I really appreciate the ones who are doing a good job," he said. "Because there are older people, elderly people ... who really can't protect themselves."
"And when police come in and do that kinda work, I think that's really great," he continued.
But he has a serious issue with police who abuse their power, especially those who use the badge and gun as an excuse to harass citizens.
"That's a bully thing to do," he said. "And I don't like bullies."
And so, armed with a cursory knowledge of the law, an electronic database and about $10,000 he inherited when his grandfather died last year, Akins decided to take his mission to the next level by buying a Sony HD camcorder and a laptop computer.
And the black bag in which to carry them.
'Whatever this is'
A 2004 study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which focused on the use of "in-car cameras" by police, showed the impact surveillance can have on policing tactics. The study's "dramatic findings" related not only to increases in officer safety but also to improvements in community and media perceptions of police, enhancements of officers' performance and professionalism and improvements in agency accountability when officers know they are on camera.
It can also change policies.
The video of the Columbia SWAT team's raid at 1501 Kinloch Court in February 2010 — during which two dogs were shot, one fatally, while a child was present — has close to 1.8 million views on YouTube and elicited a massive public response. As a result of the incident, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton changed some of the department's policies regarding SWAT raids, such as the necessity for future raids to be approved by a high-ranking member of the department and, in the case of children being present, only under the direst of circumstances.
Still, Columbia Police Sgt. Jill Wieneke, who is in charge of the department's public relations unit, said she's not quite sure what to make of Citizens for Justice or its loyal following.
"Maybe it's a hobby for some people," she said, emphasizing that the opinion was her own and not that of the department.
"It's hard for me to think, at that age, that you've had such horrible interaction with the Police Department on multiple occasions that now you're very jaded and you want to go and do whatever this is," she said.
She said she has noticed that a lot of groups are doing this type of investigative — or "vigilante" — journalism all across the country. But being videotaped is a new experience for officers in Columbia. Some officers here come from states, such as llinois, where videotaping an on-duty police officer is a Class I felony and can land a person in jail.
Wieneke felt the issue of officers being videotaped was important enough to merit a departmentwide memo.
"I felt like it was important that I let (all the officers) know, 'Hey, listen, they can record you.'" she said. "They're in a public place. ... You're a public employee, (and) as long as they're not interfering with what you're doing, there's no reason why they can't record you."
Nationally, the issue of citizen-police surveillance is at least as old as the 1991 Rodney King case. But in light of recent developments within the Columbia department — such as the September firing of an 18-year veteran officer videotaped using excessive force against an inmate in a holding cell — it quite possibly has more resonance.
"I guess I'm kind of 'middle of the road,'" Burton said of Citizens for Justice. "I'm concerned about the safety of the citizens themselves because a lot of times, they don't understand what the officer (being taped) is dealing with, and they run the risk of running into a situation that could potentially be dangerous and not even realize it."
"But absolutely it's their right to do," he said. "It's a free country."
"I think transparency is the key," he said.
"If an officer knows he's gonna to be put out in the public for doing something he shouldn't be doing, he's gonna think twice about it," he said.
And that's what the black bag is for.
Leaning against the back of his mother's red Chrysler Sebring in late September, Akins set a piece of paper on the rear window. A box containing pizza left over from his birthday the night before was balanced carefully on the trunk.
Because his scanner was taken during a checkpoint earlier this year, Akins listens to police traffic via an "app" on his iPhone. His eyes scanned the rows of numbers and names on the sheet.
"Well, this is troubling, to say the least," he said.
The sheet of paper, which he had received through a Sunshine request, held the names and radio call numbers associated with every Columbia police officer in the district, and the numbers weren’t matching up. Weeks later, he realized that he had been tuned into the wrong frequency.
"Do you see (the number) anywhere?" he asked.
His original plan for the evening was to track down a cop who, according to a witness Akins had interviewed earlier, had threatened a young woman while off-duty, saying he would slash her throat if she didn't stop mouthing off.
Akins was going to track the officer through the scanner, drive to his location and confront him about the issue. This had been planned at the group's meeting earlier in the week.
At that meeting, Akins had stood up, read from the same paper and asked for volunteers.
"He works tomorrow, Friday and Saturday," he had said, referring to the officer. "He works 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. The more people come the better."
"I'm free after 7, I can go," said one volunteer. Others chimed in and a plan was formed. Two cars, at least six people. Their safety, according to Akins, lay in numbers.
But no one showed up. It was Akins alone that Friday night, armed with a camera and an iPhone app, ready to go.
He soon realized that, without the correct information, it was useless. He had no idea which call number the officer went by. Although he could recognize many officers by sight, he wasn't quite at the point where he could identify them by voice. He chalked it up as a loss and called off the night's plan.
On the job
Akins' nights aren't always so lackluster.
When citizens call him about anything police-related, he rushes out with his camera.
"I've got hours and hours of footage of just nothing happening. But I'm out there, and (the police are) seeing me, and even if that footage is good for nothing else but that initial reaction when they turn and see me, that's worth it," he said.
He chuckled, memories of police encounters running through his head.
"It's just a funny reaction because you have some officers who you can just tell, they don't have anything to worry about," he said. "I'm just a guy with a camera."
"(But) some officers, their eyes get big and everything, and I'm like, 'What are you so nervous about?'"
One video posted last month, called "How to Handle a Questionable Encounter," is a beginning-to-end taping of a self-described "questionable" police stop of Akins and a friend at a Taco Bell. So far, it's been viewed more than 2,500 times.
Other videos show Akins approaching officers during or after traffic stops, raids, Taserings and other incidents. It's apparent throughout the videos, and, according to Wieneke, that every officer in the department now knows about the guy with the camera.
Some are very respectful, even friendly, toward Akins.
In a video to be released soon, he and Officer Deonte Eanes have a friendly back and forth.
"You stayin' out of trouble?" Eanes asks.
"Yeah, yeah," Akins replies. "We're just out here trying to separate the bad apples from the good apples, you know."
"Nothing wrong with that at all, man," Eanes says. "I'm not worried about it. I'm good with people filming me."
"Are you going to be putting my face all up on Facebook, though?" he asks, laughing.
The two joke for a few more seconds, and Akins tells him he appreciates his service to the community.
Other officers are not so keen on the idea.
A few have relied on their patrol car's spotlights to disable Akins' camera, as shown in the video, "Another Spotlight shined at CFJ Camera."
A lot of love
Akins' childhood — bouncing between friends’ houses, his mother’s and his grandparents' place in Springfield — might have something to do with the way he's treated by officers and by citizens.
"I spent a lot of time growing up in the inner city, the central part of Columbia," Akins said. "That might have played a part in being targeted by certain officers, (but) that's why there's a video where we're ... in the projects with a $3,500 camera and nobody messes with us. We have no problems, no issues, nothing like that.
"Because when people see this (camera) and we explain what it's about, especially in the First Ward, they appreciate what we're doing," he said.
It's obvious to Akins and those around him that he seems to have found his calling. Although the impact of what it is he's doing can't be easily measured, he said he believes he and his volunteers are making a difference.
"At the beginning of the summer, (calls from concerned citizens) were a lot higher, in my opinion, when (the police) were taking me less seriously," he said.
"Now … the people who were calling me, they're not getting messed with," he said. "They're not getting pulled over. For whatever reason, I can make my assumptions for why that is, but these people are not having issues with the law. I want more people to know that."
"If you've had issues with the police and you need someone to document it, just call me. Just let me know."