A veteran journalist takes on one of the trickiest assignments of his career, as a member of his city's civilian police review board.
When the city of Columbia, Missouri, created a citizens' commission last year to review complaints against police officers, I would never have guessed that I would end up as the center of controversy–not in my usual role as an investigative journalist, but in my insider role as a commission member appointed by the City Council.
Of course, some said–as I would have said a year earlier–that a lifelong investigative journalist can never switch off the vocational instinct. They were correct, but not in the way they imagined.
The description of the volunteer position could have read “Long hours, no pay, need thick skin, will make enemies, many of whom wear badges and carry guns.” So why did I apply, knowing that investigative journalists are usually shunned by lawyers choosing jurors, and by everybody else in authority–folks who seem congenitally wary of muckrakers?
Partly due to my sense of civic duty.
That sounds old fashioned, but I mean it. I care deeply about the community where I have resided for 27 years and where I plan to reside for the remainder of my life. Police-community relations had soured–mostly, but not exclusively, in African-American residential areas–and I wanted to help improve the status quo.
Also, because when I examined the list of applicants published in local journalism outlets before the deadline arrived, I sensed a danger that the board would be skewed even before it started work. Some applicants known to me, I believed, would blindly support police. Others would blindly criticize police.
I felt my professional background would enable me to avoid either extreme, since I was trained as a journalist to base my conclusions on reliable evidence. I also knew that, with my information-unearthing skills, I could probably locate some of that often elusive “reliable evidence.” Most important, I wanted to experience governance as an insider, rather than –as an outsider looking in–always depending on incomplete documentation and human sources with murky motives.
I felt no conflict of interests professionally, because I do not report for Columbia journalism outlets. My investigations show up in national magazines and in my books. I would not publish anything about pending cases, would not reveal any confidential information even after we closed a case, and would not compete with Columbia journalists.
Was I unique? Although police review boards around the country do not normally list their members by profession, an informal search by me turned up no evidence that journalists elsewhere in the country have served or are serving in such a capacity. The Crime Report would welcome hearing, however, from any journalist or former journalist who has had a similar experience.
Columbia, a city of about 100,000, did not invent local police review boards. So many boards existed that by 2010 they had coalesced into an organization known as the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (www.nacole.org). The NACOLE membership roster shows 116 U.S. cities and counties with boards at least a bit similar to that of Columbia in terms of mandate and investigative authority.
Before Columbia's board was established, the study group recommending the new entity took police concerns into account. Local police department brass and the police officers union worried that civilians from outside law enforcement would second-guess officers' conduct, perhaps during life-threatening situations. Ultimately, however, the very existence of the Citizens Police Review Board made a significant percentage of Columbia law enforcement officers anxious or downright angry.
The City Council received about five dozen valid applications for the nine positions. (One of the nine had to come from the already existing Human Rights Commission a recognition that the already existing entity knew something about police-citizen tensions.) My written application emphasized how much I had learned about law enforcement during 40 years as a journalist. The two applicants who received unanimous approval received four-year appointments. Three of us (including me) received three-year appointments, and those with the fewest votes received two-year appointments. Appointees can reapply, but the ordinance sets maximum service at six consecutive years.
The Citizens Police Review Board opened for business January 1, 2010. We were two African-American males, an African-American female, three Caucasian females and three Caucasian males (of which I was one). By vocation, we included a retired Columbia police officer, three lawyers, a biology professor, a criminal justice student, a coach of struggling university students, an administrator at a special needs high school, and me.)
Before the first appeal reached us, we underwent training, devoting Saturdays and Wednesday evenings to sessions with police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law professors, sociologists, civil rights activists and others.
During a recreation of a dangerous situation on a police department simulator, I learned, as a pseudo-cop, that my misjudgment would have caused me to die in real life. In the simulation, I stopped a pickup truck driver for speeding. Before I could reach the truck door, the driver emerged with a hostile look and a menacing German Shepherd dog. I tried to reason calmly with the driver and, by extension, the dog. I learned that if the driver issued the appropriate command, the dog could rip my face and neck to shreds before I could react effectively.
During a ride along at night with a uniformed police officer, I observed domestic violence situations, bar checks and narcotics-related arrests involving armed suspects.
The first appeal came from residents of California, not a local resident. Two marijuana legalization activists had seen a YouTube video of the Columbia police SWAT team raiding a private home occupied by a married couple, their seven-year-old son and two pit bull dogs. The raid did not go smoothly. Police killed one of the dogs and injured the other. The drug stash that an informant had told police about was nowhere to be found. YouTube viewers around the globe heaped scorn upon Columbia police. The police chief conceded that the raid had been conducted poorly, and instituted procedural reforms. But he did not publicly discipline any SWAT team members.
I agreed the raid had been mishandled. But the appeal from California offered no evidence beyond the video. The Citizens Police Review Board received no local complaint, and the individuals inside the house did not talk to us. (They later filed a lawsuit in federal court against the police.) The lack of a local complaint did not bother me, but it did bother some of my colleagues.
Sure, after viewing the video released by the police I wanted to discipline SWAT team members. But we possessed no independent corroborating information. We did get statements of the participating officers, so I was pleased with the access we were given. Yet my investigative reporting background told me we could not clearly establish violations of existing police policy based solely on the video, nor could I identify which helmeted police officer committed which acts. I reluctantly voted against discipline for individual officers, becoming the deciding vote in an otherwise evenly split board.
A Bartender's Complaint
Our most recent case proved more satisfying.
A local bartender claimed he had been the victim of excessive force by a Columbia police officer who had responded to a call about an altercation involving a bar patron. The police chief had ruled that he could not find enough information to determine the truth, so would not discipline the officer. After reviewing the extensive evidence available to the chief–again, evidence not automatically available to me as an outsider journalist–I helped guide my colleagues through an independent fact-finding process. Eventually, I felt confident we had collected enough solid evidence to recommend the officer be admonished for use of excessive force. Two of my colleagues disagreed, but I carried a substantial majority. My evidence-gathering and the conclusions I drew from the evidence seemed to influence at least some of the others constituting the majority.
Separately, the police chief and the police officers union disagreed with the ruling, spewing harsh language in public. I could have ignored the lashing out, but I felt the incendiary language caused harm to the nascent Citizens Police Review board process. So I employed my journalism training to shed light as well as heat. First, I used my skill as a wordsmith to respond–clearly and eloquently, I hope–to misguided citizens commenting on local media Web sites.
Second, I relied on my willingness as an investigative reporter to talk to anybody under any circumstance. I approached the leadership of the police officers' union and requested a meeting as an individual with the board of directors.
A few weeks later, there I was, in a private meeting room, with ten police officers and the union's executive director. After a couple of hours, the sometimes angry, sometimes emotional dialogue had yielded some profound understandings about both the dangers of police work and the nature of reliable evidence.
I walked out of that meeting pleased that I had decided to cross a professional line the day I applied to serve on the Citizens Police Review Board. I recommend that other journalists do the same, with the caveat that those journalists should not be involved in local coverage of law enforcement.
Our open meetings and public rulings have already increased transparency of police-civilian disputes. I hope our rulings achieve more than transparency, though–they just might slowly build mutual respect between citizens who yearn for high-quality law enforcement and the police who so often risk their personal safety to protect the citizenry. A wonderful bonus would consist of local journalists who study Citizens Police Review Board rulings to improve their coverage of the law enforcement beat.
Steve Weinberg began his local journalism coverage in 1969 on the law enforcement beat. He left daily journalism in 1978 to write in-depth magazine features and nonfiction books. From 1983-1990, he also served as salaried executive director of the national membership group Investigative Reporters & Editors. For the past decade, Weinberg has spent a significant portion of his time researching and writing about wrongful convictions.
Photo by 20after4 via Flickr.