COLUMBIA - Columbia's Citizens Police Review Board has been the topic of discussion for the past few months for various reasons. Monday night's City Council meeting began and ended with a discussion about the board's future, which is currently uncertain for both board and council members.
There have been reported disputes between members, disputes between the board and police and disputes between the board and council members.
In the Council's Aug. 15 meeting, it motioned to suspend the board's meetings in response to ongoing disagreements, as well as Senate bill 26, which limits the ability of civilian oversight boards to hear appeals.
Ward 1 Council Member Pat Fowler brought up her concerns with how the board has been functioning at the very end of the council meeting on Monday.
"I don't know what the answer is," Fowler said. "But I know that we are in a really bad place."
This "bad place" likely refers to the high turnover rate for the board over the past year, with a third member leaving in August.
David Tyson Smith was one of many people who joined together to found the board in 2009. He says when the board began, its purpose was very clear.
"The purpose is for accountability and to hold the police accountable," Smith said.
He said aspects of the board do not currently reflect his initial vision.
I've had concerns that the board may not be living up to its purpose," Smith said. "One of the problems is you have so much turnover on the board, and people get on the board, they sometimes don't know why they're there."
He says history is important.
"Everything started basically 2006, where the movement really started for the review board," Smith said. "And what happened is a lot of people were complaining about excessive force by the police department. And it was very widespread."
Smith said his background as a criminal defense attorney gave him a front row seat to what was happening in Columbia.
"About a third of my clients were coming in talking about it," Smith said. "Other attorneys at the courthouse were talking about it, it was a thing. And, you know, so people were meeting around Columbia, trying to figure out what to do about it, there's all these groups are kind of organically rising up to talk about the issue. And what was happening is that people were being mistreated by the police, young people, old people."
Ultimately, Smith and his peers with groups like the ACLU and NAACP wanted a way for people who filed a complaint to know that it was being heard, and Fowler shared a similar sentiment.
"There's an unequal distribution of power between a police officer and a citizen," Fowler said. "Civilian oversight is a check and balance on that. It is not an organization to be an auxiliary and support group for the police. That's a separate conversation."
While the board can make recommendations and hold meetings, its core ability is to "review appeals from the police chief’s decisions on alleged police misconduct," according to its ordinance.
But some board members feel that this appeals model is not effective in truly holding the police accountable.
"The problem with the review process, however, is that we are just going to look at it and then nothing happens," said December Harmon, a member of the CPRB. "So the chief makes this decision. We look at it. If we disagree, we get a lot of backlash from the police department as opposed to just kind of getting that cooperation."
Harmon has admitted to being very vocal about her concerns with how the board has operated thus far, but says she has no ill intentions.
"When I set out to do this, my goal wasn't to change the purpose of the board," Harmon said. "My goal was to actually have us do what the purpose asked us to do. And in setting it up as an appeals board, which to be very clear, it's not necessarily the purpose of the board. To do appeals, the purpose of the board is to create transparency and accountability with the CPD and allow citizens to have their complaints heard and reviewed. And to have essentially, a someone who's not the police reviewing their complaint."
In an effort to carry out the board's purpose, Harmon said she compiled a new investigative model that outlines the details she said the Council has been requesting.
"I want to give Council everything that they need," she said. "They always say they need more data, give all that to them in a report and say, 'this is what we need the new ordinance to look like.'"
During the board's current hiatus, the City Council is working to assemble a task force to help figure out how to help the board rebuild. The problem, however, is that there is no guarantee there will even be a board left come October.
"My concern, though, is that if we get to our second meeting in October, and we don't make appointments, if they do get an appeal, they do not have a quorum by which to review the appeal," said Mayor Buffaloe at Monday's meeting.
Ultimately, it is up to the Council to determine what happens next. The CPRB Chair Rhonda Carlson said she feels she has exhausted all her efforts.
"Unless somebody brings a an appeal forward to us, we can't, there's nothing we can do," Carlson said. "We don't have a quorum, and we have an appeal. We are you know, we're not going to be able to function. So it is in the hands of the council."
From her experience, retention on this board has always been an issue.
"It's different than other boards that I've been on where, you know, you have some camaraderie," Carlson said. "So there haven't been any real relationships built. And that's probably been the hardest and most difficult part of it. And with this high turnover, there is no opportunity to do so."
Harmon says she's seen this firsthand.
"I've spoken to past CPRB members," Harmon said. "And they said that they resigned, they saw that the system was broken, they saw that they were wasting their time...that's their words, not mine."
But she says going forward, she's going to fight to keep the board afloat for a greater purpose.
"I'm here to actually make a change," she said. "I'm here to actually make us effective. And this is actually a subject I really care about. I don't want us to be the city that has next George Floyd, I don't want us to be the next Breonna Taylor. I don't want to be the next city."
The board voted Monday night to keep the applications for the CPRB open until October 17 and discuss any issues with a quorum or lack thereof, when the time comes.