Monday, January 17, 2011

POLICE REVIEW: Resigning board member Weinberg pens inside scoop

COLUMBIA, 1/17/11  (Beat Byte) --  Veteran investigative journalist Steve Weinberg (left) has penned an eye-opening account of his controversial tenure on the Columbia Citizens Police Review Board (CCPRB), published just seven days before he announced his resignation from the board. 
"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," Weinberg writes in the January 6 issue of The Crime Report, a news magazine of the Center on Crime, Media, and Justice. 

Rhetorically wondering why he applied for a volunteer job where he was sure to make enemies, "many of whom wear badges and carry guns," the 27-year Columbia resident partly cites civic duty.  "Police-community relations had soured—mostly, but not exclusively, in African-American residential areas—and I wanted to help improve the status quo." 
He also wanted to "experience governance as an insider." 
About the board's first case—a California (state)-based complaint regarding a well-publicized 2010 Columbia police SWAT raid—Weinberg says he "agreed the raid had been mishandled" and that "lack of a local complaint did not bother me, but it did bother some of my colleagues."

He then explains his "deciding vote in an otherwise evenly split board" against police officer discipline.   
"Sure, after viewing the video released by the police I wanted to discipline SWAT team members. But we possessed no independent corroborating 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...."   
A different complaint Weinberg characterizes as "more satisfying," his investigative reporting skills helping sway the board.  After a local bartender complained he'd been roughed up by a Columbia police officer, police chief Ken Burton ruled "he could not find enough information to determine the truth, so would not discipline the officer."   
Weinberg says he "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."
Burton and members of the police officer's union "disagreed with the ruling, spewing harsh language in public," Weinberg notes.  "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." 
Ultimately, Weinberg writes that he was, "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."     

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