Acting on the recommendations of three assessors from Kentucky, the Columbia Police Department plans to revamp its internal affairs process by late January. Changes include creating a unit to handle all complaints, crafting a system to flag problem officers earlier and distributing complaint forms in more areas throughout the city.
“This is a very significant change for the Police Department,” said Aaron Thompson, the lead assessor of the review. “It’s a way-of-doing-business change.”
Police Chief Randy Boehm said the department created a short-term Internal Affairs Audit Committee to review internal affairs guidelines and policies, which haven’t been changed in more than 20 years.
Alex Waigandt, an education professor at MU, is one of two civilians serving on the committee.
“We looked at this as a continual work in progress,” Waigandt said. “We have kind of a consensus.”
But he added that the new policies won't cover every situation that could arise.
The committee has met six times since August. So far, Waigandt said, the committee has drafted early intervention and employee recognition policies.
For early intervention policies, Waigandt said the committee listed several indicators the department could use to spot a problem officer, such as several car accidents in a short period of time or issues with the use of force. He also said the department could use a computer program to collect various scraps of information about an officer.
“We want to be able to note when an officer has a situation that can be counterproductive for his or her job,” Waigandt said. “We’re looking at red flags.”
Waigandt said red flags don’t necessarily mean an officer is doing something wrong, but they could indicate potential problems.
“A lot of times these things are explained,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong.”
Waigandt said the department is also planning to distribute feedback forms in more areas around the city, such as the Columbia Public Library. Those forms are now available at the department’s Walnut Street headquarters and on its Web site, gocolumbiamo.com/Police.
“There are probably more citizens that are happy the cops are around,” Waigandt said. “So when a cop does do a little extra, a citizen ought to be able to indicate that.”
Another key aspect of the reorganization is the creation of a Professional Standards Unit, which Boehm said will oversee all departmental complaints, both internal and external. Lt. John White, who was promoted from sergeant last week, will be joined by an assigned sergeant to make up the unit, which Boehm said he plans to have in place by January.
Thompson said the new unit will replace a “cumbersome and confusing” process.
Currently, a supervisory board investigates all noncriminal complaints. Criminal complaints are reviewed by an internal affairs investigation board, which generally consists of one captain, a sergeant and an officer on a rotating basis.
The new unit won’t have continual staff changes and will handle all complaints. Thompson said the changes have several benefits, including holding certain people responsible for complaints, creating a better public perception of the department and reducing the workload of sergeants, who typically handle these sort of duties.
“It lets the sergeants get back to doing their kind of stuff instead of doing report writing,” Thompson said.
He added that the department has made all the changes he requested in his original report, except for one that deals with disclosing the results of an inquiry to the complainant.
“A part of the complaint process is that both sides should have the opportunity to look at the results of the process,” Thompson said. “The ordinance that was cited hinders the process a little bit. I would have liked to see a more liberal ordinance.”
The department cited both a section of the Sunshine Law and a city ordinance to justify its decision of nondisclosure.
In his latest report, Thompson said that even though the practice is justified, “it could be seen as suspect from outside viewing.”
Thompson said he plans to visit Columbia in December to see the changes in action and to write a final report.