Task force hears both sides of police review board debate

Thursday, December 20, 2007 | 10:56 p.m. CST; updated 4:26 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

COLUMBIA — Members of Columbia's Civilian Oversight task force drilled two speakers and each other on the necessity of creating a civilian board to oversee the Columbia Police Department on Thursday night.

The 15-member task force put Police Chief Randy Boehm and attorney Dan Viets, of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in the hot seat.


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Boehm based his argument against a civilian review board on Aaron Thompson’s findings and recommendations for the department’s internal affairs policies and procedures, which the Police Department plans to implement next year. Thompson, who presented his original findings to the task force last week, is a consultant at a Kentucky-based firm. Earlier this year, the City Council requested that the police hire the external consultant to review how the department handles complaints.

The Police Department is putting those recommendations into effect in the new year by implementing a new police unit and changed policies.

“We feel like we’ve made tremendous changes in the department,” Boehm said to the committee.

Since November, the police have promoted three sergeants to lieutenants to create the Professional Standards Unit, which will oversee department affairs and policies, citizen complaints and criminal investigations. This is the first time in more than 30 years that the Police Department will have lieutenants.

Boehm argued that the reorganization of the Police Department will enhance the administrative, internal and external business of the department.

One of the key changes in the department, Boehm noted, will be how citizen, or external, complaints are handled and investigated by the department.

“I feel we were doing a good job in investigating officer conduct,” he said. “What we were not doing so well in is the transparency of how we were doing it.”

The new process requires that the officer investigating a complaint respond to the citizen about their complaint within seven days, as suggested by Thompson’s recommendations. From there, the citizen will be provided with direct contact information for that officer as well as a status report at least every 14 days.

Boehm hopes to have the new internal affairs policies up and running by Feb. 1.

In his portion of the meeting, Viets steered the task force toward forming a citizen review board that could complement the Professional Standards Unit.

“In order for a reasonable degree of confidence in the objectivity of such reviews to be established, there must be an opportunity for independent, external investigation of citizen complaints,” Viets wrote in a letter to the committee before Thursday’s meeting.

After Viet’s presentation, the task force questioned Viets on the financial risks of the board, and the adequacy of supporting evidence to indicate there’s a problem with the police in Columbia.

“An external review will be much more credible to our community than an internal review,” Viets said. “It’s important citizens of our community have faith in our Police Department.”

Task force member Chris Egbert agreed that citizen review would improve public perception.

“I know absolutely nothing about civilian review boards. I know about police watching police,” he said. “People don’t trust police will investigate themselves properly.”

Viets also said a review board should have the power to subpoena witnesses and conduct hearings.

“There should be a paid, professional investigator, not just a group of volunteers that reports to the board,” said Viets.

The task force then discussed amongst themselves what they can do to prepare a review for City Council. The chair of the task force, Rex Campbell, asked for information on how many complaints are made by minorities. Boehm estimated that it was about 40 percent.

“Our job is to be reasonable and objective in what is needed,” said Jeff Williams of the Third Ward and co-chair of the task force.

The task force will create a report, based on its findings, regarding the necessity of oversight of the Police Department’s policies and procedures.

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