Burton requests city-funded attorneys for CPD officers

The city only provides officers with attorneys if they have been named in litigation.

Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton is requesting the city provide legal representation for police officers under review by the Citizens Police Review Board.

At the board's Feb. 9 meeting, Burton said he wants the city to provide the attorneys, as opposed to the expenses being paid by the individual officer or the Columbia Police Officers Association.

"I think if you're a police officer coming here to a public meeting and you're going to be asked to testify about something that you could be held accountable for later, then we should have legal representation for these officers," Burton said at the meeting. "I don't think it's right that it be at their expense or at the association's expense."

Although the board does not have the power to subpoena witnesses, the Columbia Code of Ordinances requires Burton and all police officers to cooperate with the board in its investigations, including appearing before the board and answering all questions truthfully. The officers' testimony is not sworn and no official record is taken, City Counselor Fred Boeckmann said.

"It is my opinion that if they want an attorney, they can provide their attorney at their own expense," he said. "If the CPOA wants to spring for it, that's fine, but a city employee who's being called before the board to say what he did? I don't see that that's a responsibility of the city to pay for that."

CPOA Director Eric Dearmont said in an e-mail the organization has hired an attorney to investigate whether CPD officers have the legal right to be provided with a city attorney when being investigated for on-the-job incidents.

"The city's exposure to liability is tempered when officers' rights are protected," Dearmont said. "Due to the serious nature of many of the incidents before the board, and given the fact that those meetings are by design public in nature, it is not far-fetched to anticipate that civil litigation will result following the closure of the board proceeding."

Dearmont said if officers are named in resulting litigation, the city would have to provide the officer with representation and providing the officer with an attorney at the outset would help the city in the long run.

Boeckmann said the final decision is not the board's to make but rather Burton would have to approach Columbia City Council.

"It's my understanding that Chief Burton wants the money to come out of the city budget," review board chairwoman Ellen Locurto-Martinez said. "That puts it back in the area of City Manager Bill Watkins. It's a big circle right now."

Dearmont said most CPOA members participate in a legal defense plan, a type of pre-paid legal insurance offered as a benefit of the Fraternal Order of Police. He said the issue with legal defense paying for the representation is that, if used repeatedly like in a review board investigation, the insurance provider can either cancel coverage or raise premiums.

Dearmont said since representation for the plaintiffs is allowed to be present at the review board meetings, they have access to information they would not otherwise have.

"This amounts to what I have referred to as free discovery, which can be used in crafting petitions and in planning litigation strategy," Dearmont said. "By providing officers with counsel at the time of the board proceeding, we hope to ensure that officers' rights are protected and, as a result, that the city's exposure to liability is managed to an extent."

Dearmont said he is waiting to receive an official written response from the city counselor before moving forward with the request.

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