On Wednesday night, members of the Citizens Police Review Board discussed holding closed hearings for complainants who may be afraid or unwilling to testify before the public.
"People have appealed and not come through," said board member Gabriel Dean, a Human Rights Commission representative. "If a complainant asks for closed session, we could do it but our response would be open to the public."
To appeal a complaint to CPRB, a person must first file a complaint to the Internal Affairs Unit at the Columbia Police Department. The unit then reviews the complaint and responds to the complainant in a letter saying either the complaint was not valid or that Internal Affairs plans to investigate it.
Board member Daniel Jacob suggested that complainants may be unaware they can appeal their complaints to CPRB, even if they are told by Internal Affairs that they aren't legitimate complaints.
"I haven't heard anybody say they would only testify if it wasn't on television," Jacob said. "Out of 104 received complaints, only 40 were 'proper' complaints according to Internal Affairs, leaving 64 that did not constitute as complaints."
The board opened up comments in reference to holding closed meetings to the public.
"I think it'd be a big mistake to go to a closed session," said David Tyson Smith, an attorney for Smith and Parnell, LLC." (The board) was built on two principles — accountability and transparency. If the public feels like they're being locked out of something, they will lose faith. If you go to a closed session (for testimonies), the public will wonder what else you'll go to a closed session for. You have to stay true to your principle, which is transparency."
Columbia resident Donnie Warren agreed, saying that he believes the public wants the testimonies to be open.
"Even if we (the public) aren't here, we are paying attention," Warren said. "I think it's important that complaints are out there so the citizens know what's going on."
Board member James Martin suggested CPRB begin to follow up with complainants who do not follow through with their testimony to see if it is because they are afraid to publicly testify.
"I understand the argument for the complainant but I don't think it'll make much difference," Smith said. "The board is on a slippery slope anyway, with people wondering if it's working or not. What is supporting this board is the people. A lot of people want the board to go away. The powers that be would like nothing more than for this board to go away, depending on who you're talking to."
Board member Betty Wilson said the board was acting prematurely trying to make a decision on having closed meetings or not, since there was no data involved.
"We represent the public first and foremost," Wilson said. "If we took away transparency, that would be a mistake."
Jacob suggested that there would be no issue with holding closed meetings if the board was capable of getting their mediation program up and running. CPRB asked if forfeiture allocations could be used to fund the mediation program, but Police Chief Ken Burton said that forfeiture funds could not be legally used to fund the mediation program during a City Council meeting in January.