COLUMBIA — Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said Wednesday he doesn't know whether there is any usable officers' body camera video of the fatal shooting of Clarence Coats Jr. on May 13.
Burton and Deputy Chief John Gordon suggested there might be some video available, but access to it would be tightly controlled.
“Some of the operators that arrived on scene didn’t have body-worn cameras because they were SWAT-involved personnel,” Gordon said. “I don’t know how much body-worn camera footage there’s actually going to be.”
Burton and Gordon made those comments at the department's quarterly meeting with the news media Wednesday morning at police headquarters. Most of the news media's questions focused on the shooting of Coats by an as-yet-unnamed Columbia police officer. Burton said the officer, whom he described as a veteran member of the police force, remains on leave.
Coats, 41, was shot after officers from several units of the department and Boone County sheriff's deputies responded to a call about a man shooting a gun in the 100 block of Oak Street. After a confrontation in which Coats allegedly fired at police, he was shot and later pronounced dead at University Hospital.
The investigation into the shooting was turned over to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, in compliance with state law. Burton emphasized that, in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, his department would make no comment on the incident. He added, though, that more information would be released at an unspecified “appropriate time” after the Highway Patrol and the Police Department's internal affairs investigations are complete.
Burton was asked whether any body camera video that might exist would be released before the investigations were finished.
"No, we would not do it before the investigation was concluded, if there is any body camera footage of the actual incident," Burton said. He added that there probably is at least some video.
The regularly scheduled meeting with news media came the morning after Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas and members of Race Matters, Friends, said it would be beneficial for the Police Department and city officials to publicly explain the department's use of force and active shooter protocols. Thomas said he would make a formal request at the City Council's next meeting on June 5 for the Police Department to do so.
"The shooting death of a Black Columbia resident by a police officer raises public policy questions related to police 'use of force,' racial disparities and gun control, among other difficult issues," Thomas said in his Tuesday night email. He went on to praise Burton, however, for helping develop the department's use of force policy and said it appears to have been followed correctly in the Coats shooting.
Burton on Wednesday said “there are some people in the community that are trying to make this a racial issue, and it’s simply not."
Race Matters, Friends, has criticized Mayor Brian Treece and Burton for failing to express condolences to Coats' family. Several members of the group showed up at the Police Department Wednesday morning in hopes of attending the meeting, but police prohibited them from doing so.
"We want to know why were were shut out of this meeting," Race Matters, Friends, member Tory Kassabaum said outside the room where the meeting was held. "We were going to come to ask about procedure."
Specifically, she said, she was curious about Burton's position on dealing with people who are armed and suffering from mental distress.
Asked how police educate the public on the department's use of force policy, Burton said: “We educate the community by putting it on the website. The use of force policy is all out there.”
Burton in a prepared statement called the shooting a tragedy "for the Coats family, our officers and their families, our department and our community as a whole."
"It's important for everyone to remember that there are two parties involved that are most important, that's the Coats family and our officer and his family. Both deserve due process."
Burton said he is not yet ready to engage in a public, community conversation on the topics of use of force and officer-involved shootings, given that the investigation into the Coats incident is ongoing.
"I know there are people out there that are clamoring for information, that they're curious about our use of force policy. I would refer them to the website. It's all there," Burton said. "But I want to emphasize that this is a situation that we have never experienced before in Columbia. It was an active shooter, and an active shooter is an extremely dangerous situation for everybody involved. And the officers actually went into a guardian mindset trying to protect the citizens that lived in that community, and I think they did a remarkable job."