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April 12, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
In 2006, a woman approached David Tyson Smith for help. According to Smith, she had been at the mall with her children when police arrived and told certain people to exit to the parking lot or café court area. She was willing to leave but said she couldn’t until she got her kids. Four officers jumped on top of her and pushed her to the ground.
For Smith, this was the final straw. He knew something needed to be done to curb the bad relations between the police and Columbians.
Smith was appointed to an oversight committee to study the issue. Their meetings resulted in a unanimous vote for the creation of the Citizens Police Review Board, which was founded in July 2009.
A graduate of the University of Missouri and Tulane Law School in New Orleans, Smith has 12 years of experience from various jobs in the field, including a civil litigation job working for a firm suing tobacco companies, before starting his own firm with partner Malia Parnell.
As a lawyer specializing in criminal defense and personal injury, Smith works to help people avoid wrongful prosecution every day. Smith has seen cases ranging from MIPs and DWIs to speeding tickets and murders.
Here, Smith talks about his experiences as a lawyer, his opinion on local crime and ways to improve
How would you characterize the crime in Columbia?
I think that the crime is getting worse, but that’s normal for a city that’s growing. We’re kind of experiencing some growing pains. I grew up here. It’s worse than it was when I was younger, but I’ve lived in New Orleans. I mean it’s terrible down there. And so I don’t think we’re seeing some of the issues we see in some of the bigger cities like St. Louis, Chicago, that type of thing. But it’s obviously not the way it was 20 years ago.
What issues within the justice system should people be aware of?
I don’t think it’s really a fair system for the poor. I’ve had prosecutors tell me things like, “Even though they’re not totally convinced my client’s guilty, we’ll have a trial and see what happens.” Well, that’s easy for them to say because they get paid. But for my client, he’s got to pay thousands of dollars in lawyer fees. And then at the end if he’s vindicated, he’s had to go through 18 months of hell just to be back where he started. I think especially in this region, the lack of minorities I see on juries, the lack of minority prosecutors and judges is a problem. Is it entirely fair to a person of color being convicted of a crime, and everyone on the jury’s white?
What do you think law enforcement needs to do to curb the crime locally?
I think our police department does a good job of catching criminals. I’ve always been impressed with them in that aspect. It seems like when a crime happens, they usually apprehend the people who did it within 24 to 48 hours. Any criticisms I’ve had with them over the years have been more excessive uses of force. That has been a problem. As far as curbing it, I think community police … knowing the neighbors and not just driving through, but getting out and walking around so they know if there’s something out of line or if there’s some person that doesn’t seem to fit in the neighborhood.
What is your opinion on the recent shootings?
Oh, I think it’s terrible. It’s interesting because we were all sitting in the break room, my partner and my assistant, and when we were reading about these, everyone turns to me, and they said, “You know, if one of these people came to you, would you represent them?” And I said, “Probably.” But everyone deserves to be treated fairly, and that doesn’t mean people always walk scot-free. I live in the community just like everyone else. I don’t want my kids getting shot, I don’t want my kids getting hurt, I don’t want bullets flying through doors or anything like that. I love Columbia. We chose to come back to Columbia. And I don’t like crime any more than anyone else.
Has there ever been a particular case that really challenged you or that you found difficult to work on?
I had a murder case that I found very stressful. I think any time you have someone’s life in your hands, and they’re looking at a huge amount of time, whether it’s 20 years, 50 years, 60, 70 years in prison, there’s a stress factor that goes along with that. Even other big drug cases where people are looking at a lot of time — those tend to weigh on me a little bit more than other cases because the consequences are so great.
Do you find a difference in how MU police operates versus the Columbia Police Department?
I find the Columbia Police Department to be a little more professional than the MU police department. Sometimes I question, when they’re writing a report, I question why an officer is doing something that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. And I think they do a good job, but I find that they’re not as consistent.
Have there been any particularly big cases you’ve been involved with recently?
I have to be careful about talking about that. Without a client to give me permission to speak names, even though they may be public, I mean you can research, Google me, look things up.
There’s been a lot of concern lately about a police procedure that lets officers walk away from non-injury accidents without writing a report. What are your thoughts on this policy?
I don’t like that because, well I mean for several reasons. One, I think what happens at accidents need to be documented, even if they’re not injured. You don’t know if someone’s injured or not. They seem fine at the time and they wake up, and they’ve got some type of pain in their back that they weren’t aware of. And without a police report, it makes it difficult for the insurance company to determine who was at fault. So I think civilly, it’s caused problems.
Are there any future goals that the board has set for improving its process or how it helps the citizens with their issues with the police?
The thing is with the board, it’s young, and I think they’re getting their footing underneath them and starting to define themselves. But it takes time. I think it’s holding the police accountable. It’s doing what it should do. For example, I’m convinced that the recent firing of Rob Sanders — Chief Burton fired Rob Sanders, the officer who pushed the guy into a holding cell, cracked his skull. And Chief Burton fired him, and that led to the outrage around town. But the police didn’t like it; everyone else thought it was great. I think it’s opened up dialogue between the police and the community, and it’s brought transparency to the city, where before things were going on and nobody knew about them. You can never go wrong with accountability. I think that the review board is moving in the right direction.
Aside from being a lawyer and your participation in the Citizens Review Board, are there any other ways you’re involved in the community?
We attend the Crossing Church. We enjoy the church. I’m also a member of the Ragtag Board of Directors. So I enjoy film and participating in the evolution of the Ragtag Cinema. We’ve just purchased a new projector we’re proud of.
Do you have any aspirations to enter politics?
I’ve thought about that a lot. And people have asked me about that. I think it’s a timing issue. Not at this moment; I’m not going to run right now. Every election cycle I think about which race would be the right one, so we’ll see.