Watkins dismisses review board idea

Columbia’s city manager calls the proposed citizens group “unnecessary.”
Sunday, November 5, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:25 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

City Manager Bill Watkins is recommending that the City Council vote against the creation of a citizens board that would act as a watchdog for the Columbia Police Department.

The ordinance to create a civilian review board was proposed at the Sept. 18 council meeting by a citizens group called the Douglass Coalition. It calls for a board to review complaints and hold police accountable for investigations into officer misconduct. The proposal was largely motivated by concerns about racial profiling in Columbia. The City Council will review the proposal at its meeting Monday.

In his recommendation, Watkins wrote that such a board is unnecessary and suggested the council take no action on the group’s proposal. Watkins also cited a report by Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm that defends existing internal police review procedures.

While Boehm and Watkins agree that the current review system is effective, some residents say police need greater transparency and accountability regarding the way they handle complaints about officer misconduct.

Watkins said the ordinance proposed by the Douglass Coalition would give the board “broad authority to do a lot of different things,” including giving it the power of subpoena.

Allowing the board the power of subpoena — defined as the legal authority to demand evidence or documents — would be giving a review board “much, much, much more than it needs,” Watkins said, adding that passing the ordinance “would be like trying to kill a mosquito with a 50-pound sledgehammer.”

Alva Scott, a woman who was wrestled to the ground by police at Columbia Mall in February in an incident she attributes to racial profiling, sees things differently.

“Basically, from the memo (Watkins) is saying that there’s not a big problem, and there is,” she said. “I have people calling me at home telling me that police officers didn’t act appropriately with their husband or child. And these are people of all races.”

In his report, Boehm said civilian review boards find about 10 percent to 13 percent of complaints are valid.

He said internal reviews by the police department resulted in disciplinary action in 12 percent of investigations in 2003 and 2004, the most recent years for which data were provided.

Under Missouri law, specific action taken cannot be made public, Boehm said. The public is only told whether action was taken when they are notified about the results of an internal investigation. The action taken can be anything from a warning to the dismissal of an officer.

David Tyson Smith, a Columbia attorney who presented the ordinance, said he hopes the council will accept or revise the ordinance rather than follow Watkins’ recommendation to take no further action on the matter.

“If anyone has disagreements with the ordinance, the solution is to revise the ordinance, not throw it out,” Smith said. “It would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Ignoring or minimizing the problem is not the answer.”

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