I’ll start with the bare bones story.
In December of 2009,Derek Billups was tending bar at Nephew’s Night Life in Columbia, MO. His ex-girlfriend was at the bar causing a scene and when Billups turned his back, ice thrown by his ex-girlfriend went whizzing past his head. When he turned and verbally confronted her, he was rebuked by the bar owner. Billups then threw an object at his boss “to prove a point”. Likely embarrassed by the incident, the bar owner summoned the police.
When the police arrived to the parking lot, Officer Nathan Turner approached Billups from behind and demanded he put his hands behind his back. Turner then grabbed Billups by the wrist but Billups pulled his hands to his chest. Turner struggled with Billups as the two fell against a parked vehicle and eventually ended up on the ground with Billups in handcuffs. Billups was not arrested and no charges were filed against him.
Billups later filed a complaint with the CPD alleging that Officer Turner had not announced himself as a police officer and had used excessive force as he threw Billups to the ground. Due to several internal paperwork mistakes, his complaint rested at the CPD office for several months and was only released after a well-publicized letter from local attorney Dan Viets made its rounds among city leaders and the press. After interviewing several witnesses, Chief Ken Burton and his Internal Affairs Unit eventually came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to charge Officer Turner with any sort of misconduct.
Unsatisfied by the Chief’s opinion, Billups, with the help of Dan Viets, appealed the decision to the Columbia Citizens Police Review Board. Several interesting facts were brought to light during the appeal and the accompanying investigation.
Several witnesses testified that Officer Turner had failed to identify himself as a police officer as he approached and attempted to restrain Billups from behind. Even Officer Turner, in Ronald Reagan-esque fashion, stated that he could not recall if he had warned Billups that he was a police officer.
Of course the question of what was said could have been cleared up had the audio from Officer Turner’s personal recording unit been available. The unit had either been turned off or the audio erased before the incident was investigated. Although it has not been publicized, I heard from a credible source that Officer Turner did receive a reprimand due to the missing audio from the incident.
A fellow senior officer testified that she had instructed Turner to wait until she arrived at the scene before he approached Billups. Officer Turner ignored her instructions.
Like clockwork, the Executive Director of the Columbia Police Officer’s Association, Attorney Eric Dearmont came to the aid of Officer Turner. The CPOA is the local private police union and collective bargaining organization. The CPOA seems to come to the aid of any officer accused of any misconduct, regardless of the validity of the accusation. Remember Officer Robert Fox? He was the officer who was caught running background checks on peaceful protestors and posting their sealed juvenile records in the Columbia Daily Tribune comment section. He’s also the cop who maced and assaulted Willie Smith. Eric Dearmont and the CPOA defended his actions.
Both the CPOA and CPRB member known for her pro-police bias, Susan Smith, evoked a Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor in their defense of Officer Turner. In a nutshell, Graham v. Connor demands that a court examine the “reasonableness” of an officer’s actions in a given situation. The ruling is usually used to protect officers who need to make split-second judgments in dangerous or potentially dangerous situations.
Dearmont (on behalf of Officer Turner) and Smith (on behalf of the citizens of Columbia [ha!]), argued that Officer Turner had acted in a reasonable manner in the given situation. Luckily, the bulk of the CPRB saw otherwise.
Following the ruling, the CPOA issued a harsh, and in my opinion, arrogant statement condemning the CPRB. I’ll examine this statement later in this blog post.
So let’s examine the reasonableness of Officer Turner’s actions.
Officer Turner ignored the better judgment of his senior officer and chose, rather than waiting for more experienced assistance, to rush to the scene and grab Billups. This was certainly neither a split-second decision nor a reasonable one.
Officer Turner chose to approach Billups from behind and demand he place his hands behind his back without warning Billups that he was a police officer. The only thing “reasonable” about this part of the story is Billups pulling his hands away as a strange man approaches and grabs him from behind.
Officer Turner either turned off his personal audio recording device or deleted an important section of the recording. This action does not directly speak to the reasonableness of his actions, but it does cast some doubt on the issue of motive and premeditation. It makes Officer Turner appear to be a wee bit guilty.
Considering the fact that Officer Turner was responding to what amounted to a snowball fight, it was not reasonable to physically restrain Billups and eventually wrestle him or throw him to the pavement. If Turner had only acted like a normal adult human and assessed the situation through respectful conversation, none of this would have amounted to a hill of beans. And let’s not forget, Billups was neither arrested nor charged with a crime.
In their statement condemning the CPRB, the CPOA made a few interesting remarks like the following.
In proactively disregarding the test announced in Graham v. Connor the Board chose to engage in the “Wednesday-evening quarterbacking” that the United States Supreme Court was intelligent enough to avoid and that officers do not have to luxury of enjoying in the midst of a serious confrontation.
Folks, this was not a “serious confrontation” until Officer Turner’s reckless actions made it so. A couple of adults throwing ice at one another, although technically an “assault”, can hardly be considered “serious”.
And how about the use of the phrase, “Wednesday-evening quarterbacking”? This would suggest that the CPRB is simply a group, with the noted exception of Susan Smith, of know-nothing civilians on a power trip. Dearmont goes on in this vein…
Up until this point CPOA has approached the Board’s existence with the cautious optimism that its members possess the ability to master the material relevant to the profession and apply that knowledge in an unbiased and well-reasoned manner. Both the lack of thoughtful contemplation present in the Board’s decision and the nonchalant approach to applying well-established Constitutional standards completely undermines the Board’s credibility with officers while still in the infancy of its existence.
It is obvious that Eric Dearmont and CPOA believe that CPRB members are far too ignorant to tell professional police officers what to do. Sadly, many Columbia citizens agreed prior to the CPOA statement and more surely agree after reading the misleading text.
What Mr. Dearmont and the media have failed to recognize is the professional pedigree of notably soft-spoken CPRB member Carroll Highbarger. Mr. Highbarger is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Columbia College alongside fellow board member Susan Smith. If his C.J. professorship isn’t enough to convince Eric Dearmont that he possesses the professional acumen to interpret Graham v. Connor correctly, please take into account what Carroll Highbarger did prior to his position with Columbia College. Mr. Highbarger was an officer in the Columbia Police Department. Heck, not only was he an officer, he rose to the rank of Deputy Chief of Police before moving on the field of Criminal Justice Education. Suffice it to say that Carroll Highbarger has more firsthand and academic police knowledge in his little finger than attorney Eric Dearmont will gather in a lifetime.
Carroll Highbarger voted in favor of the Billups appeal and spoke out against the unreasonable actions of Officer Turner. If there is any one member who can rightfully condemn the actions of a police officer, it is Carroll Highbarger.
It is also important to remember that the Columbia Police Department gains its authority to use force directly from the citizens of Columbia. Chief Burton has agreed with that statement on more than one occasion and even Eric Dearmont agreed when asked on The Mike Ferguson Show. That being the case, it is not out of line for a Citizens Police Review Board to examine police actions and shine the light of transparency on the internal workings of OUR police department.
Although I would agree with The Tribune that the CPRB had a rocky start, I’m glad they exist and I hope the members stand strong in the face of attacks from our well-organized police union and the rest of the Columbia peanut gallery.
Here’s a short postscript… I heard from a reliable source (so rumor has it) that the powers that be in Columbia city government and administration believe that the police force is out of control. These same leaders have mandated that Chief Burton get his boys and girls in blue under control… or else. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: The Chief has responded to the findings of the CPRB. Click HERE to read all about it.