Police chief meets with citizens group

The group discussed crime rates and a controversial arrest.
Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton meets with CoMoCitizens on Thursday at the home of Columbia residents Sid and Joan Sullivan. Burton answered citizens' questions on subjects such as higher accountability of officers and reports of increases in violent crimes.

Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton discussed reasons for increases in violent crime and upheld an officer’s actions in the controversial arrest of David Riley at a meeting with CoMoCitizens on Thursday.

CoMoCitizens formed in response to community outrage over a SWAT raid conducted in February in which police officers killed a dog. Investigators were looking for evidence of drug trafficking and recovered a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. Thursday's meeting was held in the home of Sid Sullivan, a Columbia resident who ran for mayor in April.

CoMoCitizens Co-founder Donald Warren facilitated the meeting. Citizens Police Review Board Chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez and CPD spokeswoman Jessie Haden were also present at the meeting, but most questions were directed toward Burton.

Keep Columbia Free Treasurer Mitch Richards asked Burton for comment on the arrest of David Riley for attempting to rob a police officer last October. The case is still under investigation.

Burton upheld the actions of Officer Chris Hessenflow, the arresting officer, and said he acted appropriately in a potentially dangerous situation, especially because Riley was significantly larger than Hessenflow.

“The officer did as he was trained,” Burton said. “And that is not to engage someone if you know he is physically superior to you where you put yourself into having to shoot him.”

Mark Flakne, a CoMoCitizens member and president of Keep Columbia Free, asked if the officer’s actions were appropriate based on security camera footage of the incident and audio from a recorder Hessenflow was wearing during the arrest. The footage does not make it clear if Riley intended to rob him.

Burton said Riley escalated the situation when Hessenflow attempted to apprehend him and that the officer had to interpret what he heard and saw and act on it.

“That’s one of the perils of being a police officer,” Burton said. “You don’t know what other people’s intentions are.”

After the meeting, Flakne said he did not feel Burton satisfactorily addressed Riley’s arrest. Riley was clearly drunk, disorderly and verbally abusive based on the evidence available, he said, but the sentence did not fit the crime.

“Now he’s doing two years in jail and his family’s ruined,” Flakne said. “Is that a just punishment for the crime?”

Sullivan asked Burton why the 2009 Uniform Crime Report, which the FBI released Monday, showed an increase in violent crime in Columbia in the year since he took office. Sullivan asked if this increase reflected an actual increase in crime or was the result of more accurate reporting.

“How much of this spike in crime is in relationship to the reporting and how much of it is actually an addition of crime that’s taking place in Columbia?” Sullivan said.

According to the FBI's data for 2008 and 2009, reports of violent crime increased 28 percent from 392 in 2008 to 501 last year. Within that category, reports of forcible rape rose from 19 to 32 and aggravated assault from 230 to 309. Reports of other crimes either stayed roughly the same or decreased. Total reports of property crime fell slightly from 3,951 to 3,906.

Burton said interpreting crime statistics can be complicated and cited many possible factors for the increases, including natural fluctuations and a rising population. He also said most violent crimes are committed by people familiar to the victim and there is very little police can do to prevent them.

“Those things happen in secret most of the time, and the police find out about them after the fact,” Burton said.

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