New task force on police to meet Thursday

Sunday, December 9, 2007 | 6:46 p.m. CST; updated 7:24 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

COLUMBIA — When it meets for the first time this week, the task force charged with determining whether the Columbia Police Department needs citizen oversight will face an impossible challenge: pleasing everyone.

“This is as conflicted of an area as the city has,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said. “There is no doubt people will be unhappy with whatever action is taken.”

In November, the City Council approved the creation of Hindman’s 15-member task force to investigate whether a civilian board is needed to oversee the Police Department.

Hindman said there has been a long-standing concern that city police officers are too aggressive, but the recent crime wave has also led to a call for more police action.

The proposal for a civilian oversight board was rejected a year earlier by the council, was a topic of discussion in this year’s mayoral election and is now being thoroughly examined.

Supporters of a civilian oversight board say one problem is that the Police Department handles investigations of complaints into officer misconduct internally.

David Tyson Smith, a Columbia attorney and member of the task force, said he does not think the police are able to effectively investigate themselves.

“Currently, there is no accountability in the Police Department,” Smith said. “The department cannot review itself. There needs to be transparency of an agency with so much authority.”

Smith represents Alva Scott, a resident who was arrested during a near-riot at the Columbia Mall in February 2006. Smith says Scott was unnecessarily wrestled to the ground by two police officers while she was trying to reach two of her children to get them out of the mall. Scott was not charged after her arrest.

The nature of her arrest, and that the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing, led to the first proposal for an oversight board in 2006.

Smith said the lack of openness and direct civilian oversight in the department means people are less likely to cooperate with police when help is needed.

“The lack of openness creates distrust of the Police Department in all of Columbia, regardless of race,” Smith said.

But despite his criticisms, Smith said he thinks the city is headed in the right direction by forming the task force, and he is enthusiastic about being a member.

“I am very happy with the members of the committee,” Smith said. “It is a group of intelligent people who are open to the process.”

Rex Campbell, a retired MU professor, is the chairman of the task force. Campbell said the task force would not make any recommendations to council until spring 2008 at the earliest.

The task force is independent of the mayor and council. Hindman said he met with the task force at its first meeting to give general advice, but that it’s now on its own.

The first public meeting of the task force is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday on the mezzanine level of the Daniel Boone City Building, 701 E. Broadway. Aaron Thompson, professor at Eastern Kentucky University and a Columbia police consultant, will be panel’s first guest.

Thompson was hired in February to review the Police Department’s internal affairs system and made recommendations in November. The police are implementing those recommendations and reorganizing internal affairs guidelines for the first time in 20 years.

Though Thompson said he does not have an opinion on whether a civilian oversight board is needed, he said he was impressed that Columbia was going through a process to review a touchy subject such as police conduct.

“It is a positive that the Police Department brought in outside counsel and listened to recommendations,” Thompson said. “A process that increases communication between police and the public is a positive.”

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