Columbia police and City Hall, sounding themes of transparency and trust, announced plans Thursday for body cameras and more training of all officers as well as the creation of a commission to investigate discrimination or abuse in any city agency.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said the changes come amid national concerns about mistrust of police, particularly among African-Americans in the wake of deaths in Florida, Missouri and New York of black males at the hands of white officers.
Among the other promised improvements for next year is a pilot project to require detectives to make video and audio recordings of interrogations of suspects in violent crime cases starting early in 2015, Chief Skip Holbrook said at a news conference to discuss a series of changes.
Defense attorneys in last month’s murder trial in the shooting of a mother of four children challenged Columbia police detectives on why they recorded some parts of their interviews of witnesses and suspects and not other parts of the same interviews.
Benjamin said mandated recordings will make the Columbia Police Department the only local police department in Richland and Kershaw counties to have such a procedure.
The proposed improvements also include:
• More training in cultural diversity, dealing with people who are mentally ill or have chronic illnesses, conflict resolution to defuse the likelihood of violence and unconscious discrimination. Details about the training were not released.
• Adding a civilian to the police department’s five- to seven-member internal affairs review board.
• Publishing annual reports on complaints against officers, the resolution of those complaints and a summary of officer-involved vehicle crashes.
• Hiring more minorities so the police force more closely represents Columbia’s diverse population.
• Adding a minority to the police department’s hiring board.
• Intensifying recruitment of minorities.
• Posting in-progress calls to police on the department’s website to more clearly show what officers are doing in near-real time.
• Establishing a seven-member Human Affairs Commission appointed by City Council to review complaints involving any city employee and to propose policies for Columbia government.
“We’re going to have increased focus on accountability,” Benjamin said at police headquarters. “We want to make clear that Columbia is in the vanguard of what it means to build a world-class police department.”
Holbrook said achieving stronger community policing as well as meeting hiring diversity goals are made more difficult by the 45 unfilled positions the department has now on its force of about 400 officers. He said he wants to have enough officers so they have enough time to walk their beats and get to know residents better.
“This will be a several-years process,” Holbrook said.
Benjamin and Holbrook insist the climate in Columbia is different than in places where demonstrations and unrest have gripped communities.
The mayor said the Capital City’s reaction to September’s shooting of a black motorist pulled over near the Columbia city limits for a seat belt violation by a white S.C. Highway Patrol trooper demonstrates “that the relationships are healthy here.” The trooper later was fired and charged. His case has not gone to trial.
“We have a solid foundation of trust to build on,” said Benjamin, Columbia’s first African-American mayor.
Others were more worried about the shooting off Broad River Road, and some in Columbia’s African-American community have called for a forum so that young black men can discuss their concerns and become informed about what to do when stopped by police.
Holbrook, who has been chief for eight months, described the relationship between his police force and the community as “very strong.” But community leaders often tell him “they want to know their police officer.”
Holbrook acknowledges the department needs to be more diverse.
White Columbia police officers comprise 67 percent of the force, black officers are 29 percent and Hispanics 4 percent, according to figures from the mayor’s office. Columbia is 50 percent Caucasian, 41 percent African-American and 7 percent Hispanic, the figures show.
“We can do better than that,” the chief said of the 67-29 percent officer comparison. Then Holbrook added that the department’s racial makeup is more representative of diversity than the national average.
The chief and the mayor pledged that the entire force will have body-worn cameras by the end of next year. If U.S. Justice Department matching grants Columbia is seeking and the police budget do not cover the full cost, City Council will make up the difference, Benjamin said.
Holbrook estimates it will cost about $250,000 to equip every officer with body cameras. Holbrook launched a pilot program in August using 12 cameras for officers in the city’s key entertainment and commercial districts.
Though Columbia is to open its hiring practices and police-review processes to civilians, the State Law Enforcement Division will continue to investigate all officer-involved shootings, Holbrook said.
He would not be precise about when the first of the yearly reports on complaints against officers and vehicle crashes will be released. “Some time after the first of the year,” he said.
Holbrook said he will appoint a civilian to the internal affairs board by the end of March. So far this year, 162 complaints have been filed, according to a police spokeswoman who said that a more refined breakdown was not readily available.
Benjamin said the council-appointed commission will be comprised of appointees by each of Columbia’s seven City Council members and that a city staffer will be assigned to work with the commission. Asked when the commission will be selected, he said “soon.”
Acknowledging the difficulty of achieving the goals announced Thursday, the mayor said, “You don’t build community trust with one press conference.”