In the news

Choke-Holds and Roll Carts

December 13, 2020

Dear Constituent:

In response to my last newsletter, many constituents wrote to me to ask about ways to help other residents who are struggling to pay utility bills.

The most efficient way to do this is to sign up for the City's CASH and HELP programs:
  • C.A.S.H. (Citizens Assisting Seniors and Handicapped) program assists low-income elderly and disabled citizens who have exhausted other resources.
  • H.E.L.P. (Heat Energy and Light Program) program assists low-income families with children in one-time emergency situations.

If you can afford to do so, please join me in supporting these programs with a small, monthly donation.

Prohibition against CPD Officers using Choke-Holds

Columbia Police Department (CPD) policy currently states that choke-holds (which restrict a person's ability to breathe) and vascular neck restraints (which stop blood flow to the brain) are "prohibited except where the officer reasonably believes there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to him/herself or a third party and this action is the only reasonable means at the time to stop the threat."

I agree with The People's Defense (which has been organizing protests in Columbia since the murder of George Floyd) that this policy needs to be updated. The language of the exception (“where the officer reasonably believes there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury …”) creates a very large "loop-hole." The purpose of the policy is to deter the kind of police violence which has been seen often on video in recent years (mostly against Black men) and reported in many other cases when video was not available, and this "loop-hole” is likely to render the policy ineffective. The People's Defense has called for an outright prohibition against choke-holds and neck restraints, and I have asked City staff to develop an ordinance to accomplish that.

Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones has expressed concerns about this proposed ordinance. Since police officers are authorized to use "deadly force" in certain situations, he argues, it does not make sense to prohibit one specific form of "deadly force" (choke-holds and neck restraints). He also shared video of a situation in which an officer's gun had been taken by an assailant and the only way to prevent the gun being used against the officer was by applying a choke-hold.

Through further research into this issue, I learned that a best practice in “police use of force” policy:

  • Prohibits choke-holds and neck restraints, but
  • Recognizes that, in a deadly force encounter, an officer may be unable to access authorized force options and may use another form of deadly force, and
  • Recommends a review of the policy violation takes that into account.

In my view, this language is much clearer than CPD's current policy and Chief Jones has indicated that he will support this change. At the same time, City Council has also requested an ordinance prohibiting choke-holds and neck restraints with no caveats. It is my understanding that both changes will be brought forward at the January 4th or January 19th City Council meeting.

Please let me know your thoughts on this issue. Police officers have a very difficult and dangerous job, which is why we give them the awesome power of "deadly force." However, it’s important to remember that they work for the community and the community must decide how and when that power can be used.

Automated Trash/Recycling Collection and Roll Carts

Manual trash collection is one of the most dangerous jobs in municipal government, often leading to more injuries and fatalities than are suffered by fire fighters and police officers.

Columbia workers visit 1,000 homes in a typical shift, hauling bags weighing up to 50 lb and sometimes containing dangerously sharp objects into the back of the truck. They also jump on and off the tailboard at the back of the truck continuously - a dangerous maneuver especially when workers are physically fatigued. The City created a policy banning firefighters from riding on the tailboard of fire trucks after someone was killed, and yet we still force the trash collectors to do this.

Ian Thomas working with city refuse collectors

In a message to City Council members in August, City Manager John Glascock said, "It is important to me to fight for a system that values the health of city employees. We had a refuse collector killed by being run over by the refuse truck. ... An employee was impaled by riding on the back of a refuse truck that backed into a pole with foot pegs attached to it. ... We have injuries that could have been prevented had we had a different system." He went on to say that, "quality of life will be diminished because of the day to day punishment that we require them to perform - they will need joint replacements, physical therapy, and living with pain the rest of their life."

This is why it's so hard to recruit employees for this job, despite raising the pay from $10/hour to $22/hour in recent years. This is why the City has been forced to suspend curbside recycling pick-up - we barely have enough workers to pick up the trash! And this is why, in my view, we need to switch to a modern system of automated collection including roll carts.

Automated roll cart trash collection

I have spoken with hundreds of constituents about this issue, and I respect the position of those who oppose roll carts. They are not very attractive, but they're only out there one day per week; they do require storage, but no more than the space occupied by a full bag of trash; they may be unwieldy for some customers, but City staff will perform this function at those homes; they will involve an up-front investment of funds, but will save money in the long run because of reduced staffing costs.

Five years ago, a majority of voters supported a citizens' petition, creating an ordinance that prohibits the City from implementing automated collection with roll carts. Since then, conditions and public opinion have changed - I have heard from constituents who opposed roll carts then but have changed their minds, from others who were confused by the 2016 ballot language and did not vote the way they intended, and from new residents who are aghast that we still operate the "bag system." It is my belief that a strong majority of Columbia voters now supports this transition.

During last week's City Council meeting, I followed through on a promise I have made many times over recent months and asked for legislation that would place the roll carts question on the April, 2021 ballot. To my surprise and disappointment, a supermajority of Council members spoke out forcefully against this proposal, effectively killing it - here's the video of that discussion: (2:15:50 - 2:27:15)

This means that the only path to giving Columbia residents an opportunity to vote on this question is an initiative petition. Amy Belcher, Kristin Hill, Rachel Proffitt, and other advocates for a safe and efficient waste management system have collected about 1,200 signatures towards the 3,300 they need to put this issue on the ballot - a challenging task in the middle of a pandemic.

If you support removing this obstacle and allowing the City to start developing an automated collection system, I encourage you to:

Upcoming dates are always available at my web site.

Constituent Conversations

I wish you the happiest of holidays at the end of this strange and difficult year, and I look forward to seeing you again in 2021. I will be holding my next Constituent Conversations Online from 2-4pm on Sunday, January 3rd - here is the videoconference/dial-in information:

Zoom Meeting or phone 1-312-626-6799, Meeting ID: 975-5467-1272

Upcoming dates are always available at my web site.

Cheers, Ian