Conflict Between CPD and Police Review Board Proves Positive

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COLUMBIA - It's been a conflict nearly four years in the making. At city hall, the Citizens Police Review Board and Columbia police have been battling since the advisory panel formed.

But before the board took office, a committee met to form a city response to a growing number of complaints lodged toward Columbia Police. David Tyson Smith, a lawyer with Smith and Parnell law firm in Columbia, was one of the original members of the Citizens Oversight Committee.

"Talking to clients, talking to other attorneys and talking to other people in the community, everyone seemed to have an issue with things that were going on in the Columbia Police Department," Smith said.

From those complaints and meetings, the Citizens Police Review Board formed, which began hearing cases in 2009. "What I wanted to see, was real, systemic change to the system," Smith said.

But soon after the board took office, conflict arose between police and the review board. In November 2010, the review board ruled that Columbia police officer Nathan Turner acted improperly while arresting Derek Billups outside of Nephew's Bar.

Police Chief Ken Burton did not agree with the review board's decision. In response, he said there was not enough evidence to prove one way or another that Officer Turner acted inappropriately. It was the first challenge to the Citizen's Review Board's authority.

"Obviously, we're going to have disagreements and look at things a little bit differently. Police officers are going to look at it one way, and private citizens with no police training may look at it another," Chief Burton said.

Throughout the first part of 2011, conflict continued to rise between the two groups. Ultimately seven key differences came to the forefront of city council attention.

The main issue was how each group defined "police misconduct." Police wanted review board ordinance to reflect state statute, rather than their founding definition.

Columbia Mayor finally had enough. During a City Council meeting in August 2011, he proposed a two-month ultimatum to resolve those seven key differences between the two groups.

"If there are difference of opinion that remain after two months discussion, I'm gonna ask the City Council to change the ordinance," McDavid said. "I don't know how I'm going to vote on this."

Chief Burton agreed. He believed police should have some input in how the review board conducts business. "I think the department has to have input for what the board is expecting of the department and what the department is expecting of the board," Burton said.

But Smith said he believes any police involvement would be a detriment and a blow to the board's authority. "I think it's inappropriate for the police department to say we want these wholesale changes. It would have undermined the review board," Smith said.

While each side admitted the relationship is not perfect, it is conflict that continues to keep both parties working hard.

"They're representatives of the citizens. And for obvious reasons, they want it to be as open and above board as possible. I want the same things, but I also have to protect the rights of the officer when they go in there. So, it's kind of a balancing act for me," Burton said.

"I think when one group holds another group accountable, that group being held accountable is not always going to be completely comfortable," Smith said. "And that's okay."