While many Columbia residents spend their Friday nights out on the town, Matt Akins spends his monitoring crime scenes and police encounters.
Akins is the founder of Citizens for Justice, an organization dedicated to keeping the Columbia Police Department accountable for its actions. Akins videotapes the police and asks them the questions many people have on their minds but don't dare to ask.
“The whole point of going out with the camera is people just want the police to know that CFJ is here and we’re videoing,” Akins said.
Akins started CFJ in May of 2010 after a pattern of encounters with the police that he felt were handled unfairly and inappropriately. He was accused of a weapons violation, but the charges were later dropped by CPD.
Going live with the website a year later, CFJ provides information about individual CPD officers and videos Akins has filmed of various police encounters.
“We do this as non-biased as possible, but we choose what stories we do," Akins said. "We choose what we want to work on, and if we put a report out obviously we have some vested interest."
CFJ operates without funding or formal training in journalism, although some consider them citizen reporters.
“CFJ has more of a focus — not to say that traditional media is not focused — but they’re doing multiple stories on all public interests,” local private investigator Rick Gurley said. “With Matt, his focus is typically police abuse and police corruption.”
Gurley, who has known Akins for several years and often employed him for work on videography projects, said he believes CFJ is making a positive impact on the Columbia community.
“It’s people like Matt that put the watchers on watch … making sure the police aren’t overstepping their bounds and abusing citizens' rights,” Gurley said.
Columbia attorney Jennifer Bukowsky, Akins' former employer, said she believes CFJ is furthering openness and accountability in the community through its work.
Despite positive support from some community members, Akins said he has had difficulty receiving any feedback from the police. He said the police have been unresponsive when he has attempted to interview them for their point of view.
“We’ve been cast into the character that (the police) want us to be because it’s easier to write us off if we’re viewed as the negative people out there and that we hate the police,” Akins said. “Any attempt by us to change that, by looking at issues from the police’s perspective, is squelched by a lack of cooperation on their part.”
CPD declined to be interviewed.
Bukowsky commented on the program’s reception by the community.
“With anything that is kind of new or different, people will have mixed opinions about it,” Bukowsky said.
Akins has many goals for the future of his program. For now, he's taking time to further develop the website and improve quality of information.
Without funding, he said he has found it difficult to develop the program to what he said could be its full potential.
“I would like to get trained journalists involved in the program and people with professional experience,” Akins said. “I think it would be cool if we could set it up to be the type of program where kids could learn a trade skill … whether it be journalism, videography or investigative skills. We don’t get paid for this … (traditional media outlets) get paid based on their viewership … but we don’t have that. We are strictly doing this to try to get the real information out.”
Bukowsky said she think Akins could benefit from the assistance of MU School of Journalism students and their knowledge.
Nick Akins, Matt’s younger brother, has seen the program grow from an insider’s perspective since it first began. Skeptical of its success at first, his viewpoint has now changed.
“It definitely surprised me and made me work a lot harder,” Nick Akins said.
Matt Akins says he pursues the development of CFJ because his heart is in it and because of his dedication to reporting the truth.
“I think he’s really passionate about and loves what he does,” Bukowsky said. “It’s his way to give back to the community and it’s just who he is.”