A citizen oversight board for the Columbus Police Department hasn’t met in more than half a year since its formation, and city officials seem generally unsure of who’s supposed to be on the board.
In December, the mayor and city council made permanent a committee initially created to review the procedures of CPD’s now defunct Special Operations Group (SOG). The SOG, which CPD formed to patrol high-crime areas in response to public outcry after a series of shootings in early 2015, was a part of the Oct. 16, 2015, officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of 26-year-old Ricky Ball.
Former CPD officers Canyon Boykin and Yolanda Young, and current officer Johnny Branch — all SOG members — were involved in the incident. Boykin shot and killed Ball, according to a federal lawsuit he filed against the city after his termination. District Attorney Scott Colom last week turned the criminal investigation of the shooting over to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.
The SOG committee consisted of three councilmen, community leaders and appointees from each ward. As an advisory board, it presented recommendations for stiffened body camera and ride-along policy enforcement for CPD.
Mayor Robert Smith was twice forced to use his tie-breaking authority in a December meeting to move forward with creating the permanent board. Both times Smith voted in favor of the board — first to continue discussion when a councilman presented a motion to table it for later consideration, and then again when councilmen knotted in a 3-3 tie in a vote for the board’s creation.
Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor, Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner and former Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem voted in favor of the board’s creation. Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin opposed it.
But on Tuesday, Smith told The Dispatch that, to his knowledge, the CPD citizen oversight board hasn’t met since its last meeting as the SOG review committee in December.
The onus of meeting falls to the board itself, Smith said, as city administration can’t force it to meet. Smith said the city can help with providing space for meetings.
He did say he would like for the board to begin meeting, however.
“It would be good, yeah,” Smith said. “But we can’t control when they meet or where they should meet.”
At the time of its creation, SOG review committee members and council members suggested that the citizen oversight board could meet once per quarter.
Smith said he wasn’t sure what members sit on the board. Attempts to find out through other members of city administration Tuesday afternoon proved unsuccessful.
Turner, who was involved with the SOG review committee, said the citizen oversight board was supposed to begin with the same members who sat on the committee, and that they were supposed to be phased out for new members over time.
Turner, who said he believes the board should have met by now, suggested naming a chairperson for the board to organize meeting times and places. He said a few members who were on the SOG committee asked him when the board would meet again, but he wasn’t in a position to dictate when that would happen.
He added he thought the board should be made up of a few councilmen and neighborhood watch leaders to give Police Chief Oscar Lewis representatives from the city’s various neighborhoods.
Turner said part of the issue with the board not meeting may be that as time passed after the Ball shooting, public pressure to address CPD’s issues faded.
“At the time there was a lot of public pressure to do something,” he said. “I think the problem is a situation happens, and everybody gets excited and caught up in emotion. We are all human, though. Life goes on, emotion wanes and everybody forgets. That’s part of the problem — people start forgetting and get less motivated because it’s not fresh on their minds.”
Box, who was also involved with the SOG committee, said he wasn’t sure the citizen oversight board was supposed to meet on a regular schedule.
“I don’t know when it will meet,” he said. “I guess if there was ever any need for them, they could. … My thinking was they would only meet if there was something they needed to meet about. I don’t know that it was a standing board.”
Still, Turner said, it’s important for the community to stay involved and active with the police force, especially in the wake of a week that featured two nationally-publicized officer-involved shootings and an attack in Dallas, Texas that left five police officers dead.
“We have to work together as police and community and we’re not going to let a few bad apples spoil the bunch,” Turner said. “That’s on both sides. There are a few bad apples in the community and we need to get them out. Likewise in the police — the few bad ones need to be dealt with.”
Smith also said it’s important for the city to have a mechanism in place, such as the oversight board, to allow direct citizen feedback for the police department.
“It’s always good to have a dialogue and input from your citizens,” Smith said.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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