Citizens Police Review Board requests increased transparency for complaint letters

CPD chief said supplying the board with the records may breach confidentiality.

The Citizens Police Review Board requested that complaint letters be automatically sent to it from the Columbia Police Department.

Though Police Chief Ken Burton turned down the initial request, he later agreed to work with the Board to create qualifications for a similar proposal that would allow the board direct access to the files while maintaining the confidentiality of his officers.

Burton feared the original request would breach confidentiality, since the complaint letters are filed with personnel records. He said it would be impossible to ensure confidentiality in this forum and originally suggested the board go back to talking about having a closed session.

Complaint letters must be submitted in writing to the police department for review of allegations of police misconduct. The authority to decide if the submission was a complaint with substantial qualifications to precede with misconduct investigations sits within the department.

According to Section 21-54 of Columbia’s Code of Ordinances, complaint letters submitted to the Columbia Police Department with allegations of misconduct are open records, Jacob said.

The board has the right to see the extent of the complaints and who is making them, Jacob said.

“It is not accountable that the police department can make these decisions and we would never know about it,” Jacob said.

Jacob and another board member have gone to Burton directly to do an audit of the complaints. Burton responded to Jacob's claims.

There were 104 total, 60 of which were not found to be complaints, Jacob said.

The board members went through six files themselves. There were three concerns and three complaints.

Jacob compared searching through the complaints, which he described as an excessively long process, to finding a needle in a haystack.

Because Burton denied Jacob's request, Jacob recommended asking City Council to provide the board with the records.

Board member Betty Wilson campaigned for the board’s previous suggestion of creating a mediation program. The program would hold the department accountable for its decision-making process on what is a concern and what is a legitimate complaint, thus acting proactively so there would be no issue of the board having to breach confidentiality to rule if the department determined the case appropriately.

There is an intent by City Manager Mike Matthes to find funds for the program for the next fiscal year, Burton said.

“I did discuss my concerns with him, that we don’t have a whole boatload of complaints," Burton said. "So the ones that would go to mediation, I told him I didn’t think it would be fiscally prudent to put somebody on the payroll, but if we had the money where we could contract with a firm to provide mediators on an as-needed basis, that would be the way to go.”

Though Burton discussed fiscal plans, he did not specifically mention the likelihood of the program being in place next year.

Wilson and Jacob contested Burton’s statement that CPD does not have a lot of complaints. Jacob said the department has one every three days.

Near the end of the discussion, board member Stephen Alexander asked Burton if the board could get a real-time list of complaints without the names of those filing the letters and the officers involved.

Having the board review the files and then clear the department by saying the police are being accountable would bring the police good publicity, Alexander said.

Burton expressed concern that a description of an incident could lead to identification of a person or officer involved and said that he trusted the board to uphold confidentiality but wanted to re-emphasize that he has to think about his officers as well. He ultimately said yes to Alexander’s proposal but said there will be qualifications. He did not specify what those will be.

“Let’s find a way to make it work,” Burton said.

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