COLUMBIA — Matt Akins, founder of police watchdog group Citizens for Justice, has always raised questions about what he calls a "pattern of predatory policing," civil rights abuses and potential abuse of power.
He's looking for answers through a civil rights lawsuit filed May 29 against eight individuals — including Police Chief Ken Burton and Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight — as well as the city of Columbia and Boone County. He wants more than $10 million in damages, though he said the money isn't for personal gain.
"I am not doing this for the money," he said in an interview Sunday. "If I do get the money, a large majority of it will go to buy cameras and go to fund activism to watch the police. That's the only way that I would feel right about it."
Akins said in a text message the cameras would be given to "interested citizens who either feel vulnerable, or would like to take on the role of a watchdog to ensure the safety and freedom of their fellow citizens."
The lawsuit names four current and one past employee of the Columbia Police Department as defendants, as well as Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight and two former Boone County assistant prosecuting attorneys.
Burton said in an email that he could not comment on pending litigation. Columbia city attorney Nancy Thompson also said she does not comment on pending litigation. Knight could not be reached for comment.
Stephen Wyse, Akins' attorney for the lawsuit, said that the lawsuit will "see if the rule of law still matters in this country."
The lawsuit comes one week after Akins was sentenced to five years of probation after pleading guilty to a charge of unlawful use of a weapon from 2013. He was initially charged with one count of first-degree assault, one count of armed criminal action and two counts of first-degree child endangerment, according to previous reporting.
Akins said he believes that he has been targeted "more than the average person" by Columbia police, but doesn't think he's the only one. Akins said he has moved to southern Missouri to avoid serving out his probation and parole in Boone County.
His negative encounters with the police began in May 2010, according to a timeline of events included in the lawsuit. Akins said he started his activist efforts in June 2010, and in April 2011, he founded Citizens for Justice.
"These officers have done things which are unbecoming of an officer," Akins said. "Certain ones, I think it's dangerous to have these types of individuals on the streets."
Wyse said Akins' role as a citizen journalist covering police activity led to police retaliation.
"You can't target journalists because you don't like their reporting," Wyse said.
A history of police encounters
On May 9, 2010, Akins was pulled over at a DWI checkpoint by Officer Eric Hughes. He alleges he was detained without probable cause, and a firearm found on his person was confiscated.
At that time, Assistant Boone County Prosecutor Steven Berry signed a complaint alleging that Akins had committed a felony of unlawful use of a weapon. In November 2010, the charges were dropped, but his firearm was held by the Columbia Police Department until April 2013.
Wyse said that according to Missouri law, Akins was legally allowed to have the firearm, that the gun should not have been seized and that no charges should have been filed as a result of the encounter.
This incident is what initially spurred Akins to start Citizens for Justice.
Since then, Akins has had several more encounters with the police. In the lawsuit, Akins alleges that the following happened to him:
- He was stopped by Columbia Police Officer Thomas Quintana to "check his tints" on his car's windows. After informing the officer that he had a firearm in the car, the officer proceeded to search his car due to suspicion that he had seen a "crumb" of marijuana. No charges were filed.
- He was stopped for making an illegal turn and allegedly searched and handcuffed without a warrant by Sgt. Roger Schlude.
- He was followed in his car by former Columbia Police Officer Rob Sanders while working for Citizens for Justice, and then allegedly seized and detained with no probable cause.
- He was identified in a poster displayed in the Columbia Police Department containing his full name, date of birth, license plate number and a photo. He alleges that this poster was in "retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights" and placed him at "greater risk of police misconduct."
- He was stopped at a traffic stop and arrested by Officer Michael Palmer on charges of unlawful use of a weapon and the unlawful possession of a prohibited weapon. Akins was found with a "butterfly knife," the blade of which was shorter than 4 inches. Missouri law prohibits concealment of knives with blades longer than 4 inches; the charges were later dismissed.
- He was stopped by Officer Palmer allegedly without probable cause, and the officer issued Akins a citation for driving without a license. Palmer allegedly found a knife on Akins' body, and Akins was later charged with the unlawful use of a weapon and the possession or sale of certain prohibited weapons. The allegations were later dismissed.
- He was arrested on the charges of armed criminal action, unlawful use of a weapon and child endangerment. According to previous Missourian reporting, Akins fired a gun into the ground near Charles Powell during a planned custody exchange of Powell's child. Samantha Crockett, Akins' girlfriend at the time, is the mother of the child. The suit alleges that Akins fired a shot between Powell's legs after Powell acted aggressively. The above charges were dismissed, though Akins pled guilty to one charge of unlawful concealment of a weapon and was sentenced to five years of probation.
Trying to get answers
Akins said that while he wants answers, he is frustrated that the lawsuit may alienate police officers and deputies who may otherwise be neutral or supportive of his actions.
"I think there are (Columbia police) officers and members of the (Boone County Sheriff's Department) ... that really do like me and really do like what I do," Akins said. "This may turn them off to that."
Akins said he does his best to follow the laws. However, he said, "If a law is going to get in the way of me protecting my family or something like that, then I'm going to choose my family over abiding the law."
Before pleading guilty to unlawful concealment of a weapon in 2015*, he was placed in custody — including jail time, house arrest and work release — for over a year, and he paused his work for Citizens for Justice, following the advice of attorney Milt Harper. Akins said that while he knows continuing Citizens for Justice would be a difficult task, he has a lot of old footage he hasn't published that he wants to release.
"I got dragged through the mud because of (Citizens for Justice), but I also know that the help that I got from people like Milt Harper came for the exact same reason," he said. He added in a text message: "I know I didn't make any friends by filing the suit, but it was something I felt I had to do. The timing of the suit in relation to the sentencing was unavoidable."
Supervising editor is William Schmitt.