Columbia hires consultant to study police morale

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The city of Columbia plans to spend $45,000 on an external review of its police department following complaints about its leadership and low officer morale.

City Councilman Jason Thornhill pushed for the private consultant in response to complaints about police Chief Ken Burton’s management, the Columbia Daily Tribune (http://bit.ly/rBFUGw) reported.

The Columbia Police Officers Association and the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police want Burton fired for his own dismissal of police officer Rob Sanders in September after an incident that left an inmate in a police holding cell with a broken back. Burton fired Sanders even though an internal investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing. The city recently settled a lawsuit filed by the inmate, Kenneth Baker, who will receive $250,000.

A group of Sanders’ supporters is collecting petition signatures seeking Burton’s ouster. Supporters of the chief are collecting their own signatures to counter the opposition.

The study will be done by Eric Anderson Associates of Washington state. The report will also include an organizational review similar to 2006 police force review by the University of Missouri. The consultant fees will come from the police department’s budget.

“Maybe this is our opportunity to get a grade card on the general health of the department,” Thornhill said. “There is confidentiality, so it gives everyone the opportunity to say what they really feel like is the general health and welfare of the department. Maybe this is a good time to say, ‘Are we headed in the right direction?”’

Burton has previously denied the suggestion that officer morale was low and called the request to reinstate Sanders “troubling” and unrealistic. He was unavailable for comment to the Tribune.

In a letter to members, executive director Ashley Cuttle of the local police group asked officers to be candid during interviews with the consultant and to provide examples to back up their concerns.

“It is our hope this review is being done in earnest and will bring about positive changes,” Cuttle said. “If it is not, then we will have further proof of our willingness and attempts to improve our current situation.”

Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine suggested that internal factions have created divisions within the department, a problem identified in the 2006 review.

“In all levels of the organization, there are feelings of powerlessness, frustration and anger, which have led to disrespectful behavior and further resentment,” the 2006 study said. “At present, neither side appears to be able to empathize with or trust the other side enough to appreciate their unique perspective and experience. It is as if each group is unable to ‘see’ the other’s point of view.”

Some recommendations from that study have been implemented, including the addition of the ranks of deputy chief and lieutenant to bridge gaps between department leaders and beat cops.

Burton, 56, was hired in January 2009 after a three-decade law enforcement career in Texas, including chief stints in Haltom City and Bryan. City Manager Matthes, who joined the city seven months ago; has said the chief has his full support.

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Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com

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