Bill Davis remembers the first white teacher he ever had. His name was Tim Woodward, a 20-something fifth-grade history teacher at an all-black school in Montgomery, Alabama. He wore wine-colored penny loafers.
It was the 1960s, and the non-black exemplars in Davis’ childhood were Jesus and President John F. Kennedy, whose portraits hung next to that of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in every home in his family’s public housing community.
They, like Mr. Woodward, were the good ones. Davis learned to distrust other white people, especially police officers, from the black, college-educated Freedom Riders who were often guests in the Davis home.
Davis lost touch with Mr. Woodward, but he never forgot him or those loafers. He never forgot that Mr. Woodward didn’t talk down to students, didn’t punish them if they didn’t understand — that he gave Davis a new, better impression of what it meant to be white.
When the internet era rolled around, Davis, now in his 60s, tried and failed to find Mr. Woodward. He wanted to tell him how much he meant to him.
“To put it simply, he made us feel included in his life,” Davis wrote in an email. “Not like he was trying to be black or accepted by us, but he welcomed us to learn of him.”
Years after that fifth-grade class, Davis, who is African-American, became a police officer in what he considers the most racist police department in the country: the Montgomery Police Department.
He worked alongside officers who helped arrest Rosa Parks. He learned to navigate environments where people with skin color like his and police officers defined justice differently.
Today, he serves as a member of Columbia’s Citizens Police Review Board to bridge both worlds. He refuses to generalize.
Ten years ago, he bought his own pair of wine-colored penny loafers in honor of Mr. Woodward. It was only recently that Davis, a towering and regal presence, found his old teacher’s obituary online. He sat down and wept.
If Mr. Woodward had taught Davis anything, it was that a small and consistent kindness — a recognition of a shared humanity — has the power to transcend years of distrust and misunderstanding.
The absence of trust and understanding has been evident at this summer’s seven town halls on community policing. City budget shortages, racial disparities in traffic stop data, police conduct, low police officer morale, meeting fatigue, and many people feeling unheard have Columbia at an impasse that may only be overcome by a lesson from Mr. Woodward.
The ongoing conversation about policing in Columbia is, at its core, a conversation about what it means to be human and what it takes to recognize each other as such.
A long time coming
Community policing, which partners the police and community in pursuit of public safety, isn’t new in Columbia or elsewhere.
Amid the civil rights fervor of the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a nationwide study that called, in part, for improved police engagement with minority communities.
By 1991, the Missouri Department of Public Safety began awarding contracts for community policing, according to a 1994 evaluation of several community policing programs in Missouri.
Soon after, the Columbia Foot Patrol Program was implemented downtown. Using state-level grant money, the Police Department assigned an officer to develop relationships with business owners and citizens, reduce fear of crime and provide crime-prevention training.
“The business community’s interest dovetailed well with a commitment of the Columbia Police to implement community policing in the city,” the report said.
In 1997, Norm Botsford was hired as police chief to implement a department-wide community policing philosophy, said John Clark, a local attorney with a certificate in community policing from Missouri Western State University.
Around that time, the department began offering a Youth Academy to teach kids about police work, according to the city’s website. Within two years, Botsford quit after failing twice to acquire more funding for the department, Clark said.
Under new leadership, the Police Department in 2003 developed a ”Columbia-Oriented Policing” strategic plan, which mentions the need for “citizen empowerment,” “community partnership and involvement,” and “hiring for community-oriented problem-solving.”
By then, school resource officers had been placed in local high schools, and a horse-mounted unit for special community events was about to hit the streets. It was disbanded in 2015 due to staffing shortages.
In 2009, newly appointed Police Chief Ken Burton, who had co-authored a study on community policing from his time with the Arlington Police Department in Texas, designated a downtown unit of bike-riding cops as a demonstration of “geographic policing,” a tenet of community policing.
From the get-go, Burton, who’s been criticized for not attending this summer’s community policing meetings, told officers that they should all — rather than a single unit — practice community policing, according to the recent State of the Community Outreach Unit report. Burton came to the seventh and final community policing meeting Thursday.
Shortly after the geographic policing model was introduced, the Police Department assigned two officers to patrol Douglass Park, known for its high number of calls for service.
By early 2015, not long after the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence released its final report, the department expanded the officers’ boundaries and renamed the unit the Community Outreach Unit, according to the city’s website. Within a year, the unit was working in three neighborhoods designated by the city’s strategic plan. A fourth neighborhood was added in 2017.
Based on the early successes of the unit, the City Council passed a resolution in February directing City Manager Mike Matthes to design a department-wide community policing plan. To get public input on this next phase, the city organized seven town hall meetings that were led by Sgt. Robert Fox. Fox and Matthes said they plan to co-present a report on their findings to the council by Aug. 31.
The meetings took place in each of the city’s six wards and drew 20 to 30 attendees each, with the exception of the first, which attracted about 50. City officials, journalists and police officers usually made up about half of the audience. Despite perennial concerns about racial disparities in the Police Department’s traffic stop data, only a handful of black citizens participated, except for the last meeting.
What these conversations leave out, according to Clark and Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of local activist group Race Matters, Friends, is another history — one that uniquely, disproportionately burdens black Americans.
Lack of context, lack of trust
When Wilson-Kleekamp was 12 years old, her father was pulled over by an officer in California. She and her baby siblings were in the car, which didn’t stop the officer from calling her dad “every foul name in the book.” Her dad stayed calm, but she was afraid he’d get shot.
“I remember being so terrified that I almost could not think. My whole body was shaking,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “It was a very very scary experience. That moment has never left me.”
Now that she’s an adult, Wilson-Kleekamp has had many more experiences, both good and bad, with police officers. More recently, her younger brother, who was terrified of police in high school, was pulled over by a cop.
“He treated me like a human being,” her brother told her. “He didn’t ask me if I just got out of jail, he didn’t ask me if I was related to such-and-such.”
Wilson-Kleekamp, who’s pursuing a doctorate in education with an emphasis in social studies, said the problem lies not with those in uniform but with the historical underpinnings of policing.
“I don’t think police are bad people,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “I think policing as we see it and in practice is very antithetical to relationships.”
She points to Fox’s emphasis on the Peelian Principles, a set of nine policing guidelines typically attributed to the British leader Sir Robert Peel in the 1800s.
The principles stress the idea of police as citizens in uniform: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” A department-wide return to these principles, Fox said during his presentations, would be a step toward a full embrace of community policing.
The problem with the Peelian Principles, Wilson-Kleekamp said, is that they ignore the unique history of enslaved African-Americans in the United States.
“We really leave out the role that police have played in slavery and social control,” she said. “They sort of leap-frog over this history and they’re not able to connect (that history) to why people don’t trust them.”
Clark, who studied the principles separately from Wilson-Kleekamp but arrived at a similar conclusion, believes the community and Police Department should create a strategic plan based on the Peelian Principles with what he calls a “proviso” that addresses America’s specific history. He’s written out a possible option and submitted it to the department:
“Implementation of these Peelian Principles in the United States must be informed at each stage by the conscious, intentional awareness of the effects on our communities of the 400+ year systematic, systemic, intentional oppression and brutal treatment of people of color in America — including Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, etc.”
For Wilson-Kleekamp, a sincere and vulnerable acknowledgement is in order. She said that Matthes’ comment at the June 18 City Council meeting, in which he said that there is bias and everyone has bias, isn’t enough. To say that everyone has bias is dismissive, she said.
“That’s essentially what policing has done to people of color since the inception — which is, ‘We don’t acknowledge how we’ve treated you, we don’t acknowledge the outcomes of our policing, and we do not acknowledge your anger and resentment,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “’We are entitled to treat you in the way that we want because we are law enforcement.’”
Wilson-Kleekamp submitted a records request last week to the city, asking for correspondence between Burton, Matthes, Fox and the outreach unit, so she can better understand Burton’s role in the initiative.
At the core of her request is a desire to hold the leadership of the community policing initiative accountable, especially in light of the recent Missouri Quality Award feedback that gave city leaders what she calls a “D-”.
Her critique doesn’t extend to the Community Outreach Unit, whose members demonstrate the kind of outreach that builds community, she said. They’ve been at the tables at this summer’s public meetings, listening, asking questions and taking notes.
It takes a village — or at least a unit
When he was in elementary school, Sgt. Michael Hestir wrote an essay about how he wanted to be a “newspaper man” when he grew up. Specifically, he wanted to expose injustice.
Years later, Hestir was on the steps of the Columbia Public Library when a little black girl, maybe 8 or 9, approached him. “Stickers?” she asked, and held out her hand. He checked his pockets. Another child, and a woman holding a baby — the little girl’s family, maybe — paused and watched, farther down the steps.
Hestir was out of stickers. He said he was sorry, there’d be more another time, and the family moved on.
The stickers in question, gold police badges with the words “junior officer” emblazoned on them, were purchased by the thousands, along with temporary tattoos, by the department for moments like that one. It’s the sort of “non-law enforcement-related” activity that drew criticism from three officers who responded to Matthes’ police morale survey in 2016.
But for the officers in the community outreach unit, it’s not about stickers or barbecues or basketball — it’s about the mental and relational shift that happens when a little black girl approaches a white, male police officer with trust, not fear.
It’s not the type of wrong-righting Hestir expected when he imagined himself as a journalist. But it’s pretty close.
For him, community policing is really about two things: protecting a neighbor who just wants to plant her garden, and addressing the drug dealer with a choice — go to jail, or get clean.
For the latter, Hestir will perform a mental calculus he developed long before supervising the outreach unit.
Hestir resists stereotyping and will consider context. If he recognizes the dealer from making rounds in his neighborhood, or playing baseball in Douglass Park, he’ll also know him as a father with a sick kid whose work has been hard, and who’s been meaning to fix that tail light.
Hestir’s philosophy of relationship undergirds the unit he supervises; he knows community policing at its best is intensely personal, yet at the end of the day, still accountable to the law.
Amid these ruminations, his approach is courteous. He imagines that his mom and the dealer’s mom are also at the scene. These are the qualities that got him “voluntold” to lead the Community Outreach Unit in 2015. He’s obviously good with people, listens well and is quick to acknowledge if he’s made a mistake.
He’s become a kind of middle man between the police and the communities he serves. He answers to both, and that vulnerable position leaves him acutely, wearily aware that for community policing to work, it has to be grounded in resources.
Cost of relationship, luxury of time
When Officer Matt Rodriguez ends his work day in the North neighborhood, he has a short walk home. A member of the outreach unit since 2016, he’s the first and only officer to live in the neighborhood he patrols. He moved there with his kids in October after the local homeowners’ association agreed to pay his rent.
Rodriguez admits he couldn’t do what he does if he didn’t live in the neighborhood. Although he’d made progress in relationship-building before he moved in, the months since have yielded exceptional “dividends.”
Before he was on the outreach unit, Rodriguez was on patrol — going from “call to call to call.” It’s easy to become robotic, he said, when there’s no time to form relationships, follow up, or even take care of yourself.
Officer Maria Phelps said sometimes those officers can’t even take a bathroom break.
Phelps is a member of the outreach unit, patrolling the newest neighborhood alongside Officer Tony Parker. They’re the duo responsible for Xbox with a Cop, a community event in May that pitted officers against kids inside a mobile command center they’d turned into a gaming space.
Later, another police officer who attended the event pulled over a black man in front of his family’s home. The traffic stop had several witnesses — the man’s family was in the front yard. Soon, a little boy pushed through the crowd and hugged the officer, whom he’d competed against at the Xbox event.
Phelps and Parker said it took a lot of time and resources to plan that event. It took time for people in their neighborhood to even acknowledge them, much less smile or wave. But that’s the thing about community policing, Phelps said. It requires slowing down, and that allows both officers and civilians to see each other as human.
And when it comes to the world of policing, time means money.
The Police Department gets more than 90 percent of its funding from the city’s general fund, which largely relies on sales tax revenue, according to the city’s most-recent Ten Year Financial Trend Manual.
In fiscal year 2017, the Police Department received more than $20.8 million. That’s nearly a 20 percent increase in funding from 10 years ago, when the department received about $17.4 million.
The majority of those funds go toward officer pay and benefits, including pensions.
Although funding for the department has increased, it hasn’t kept up with inflation or population growth. In 2008, Columbia’s population was nearing 96,000 but jumped to almost 119,000 by 2017, according to the manual. The number of officers has only increased by 21 during that time, Deputy Chief Jill Schlude wrote in an email.
As the city has sprawled, officers have become stretched more thinly.
Fox, who was criticized at the June 18 council meeting for seeming “disinterested at best” in community policing, said he wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about these things.
He’s tired, maybe, but not disinterested. He’s happy to talk about the books he’s reading — “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, or “13th,” the documentary about mass incarceration he watched recently on Netflix. At the same time, he’s fiercely protective of his officers, of whom he speaks in glowing terms.
“We find these gems in the community and then we expose them to trauma, horror, injury, pain, drama, domestic violence,” Fox said. “You can see officers wearing out.”
And an exhausted, beat-down, underpaid officer is more likely to say or do something wrong.
Fox thinks community policing might be the way forward, not just for the public but for the police, who on daily calls, experience someone’s “worst day, worst hour.”
He said he believes the only way for officers to do more than survive, for the daily 911 calls to be addressed and for neighborhoods to get community policing, is for the department to hire more officers. This, along with raising salaries for police officers who haven’t received a meaningful raise in 10 years, would be the first priority should voters agree, Fox said.
It would require an additional 52 officers to decrease the departments’s number of calls for service per officer to the average call volume in other comparable cities, according to Fox.
Fox and Matthes meet twice a week formally to discuss his findings. They work three doors down from each other, so they’re always talking, always sharing ideas. There will be more conversations now that the public meetings have finished. In the meantime, he’s got a report to write.
Next step: building trust
At the June 18 City Council meeting, Matthes responded to criticism after the public comment period by saying that addressing concerns about the Police Department is a work in progress. About 10 citizens took issue, saying little meaningful work has been done, but Matthes disagreed.
He referenced the department’s adoption of the bias-free policing policy, updated earlier this year. He noted that the consent to search policy, developed in 2016, has reduced disparities between blacks and whites. He’s not alone in seeing progress.
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said in a recent interview that even the imperfect public meetings represent a change from previous conversations between the city and its citizens. The city has taken the discussion into the wards, rather than staying siloed at City Hall. The city has also provided meals and child care, allowing police officers and community members to sit, eat, listen and talk — not the way things used to be done.
An even more positive voice is that of Chris Haynes, 52. When he was a student at Hickman High School, his break-dancing skills landed him on MTV, and he was a member of the school’s drill team. But soon, the young black man from Mississippi got carried away with the night life — and the drugs that go with it. He became addicted and ended up in prison.
He’s been clean for more than a decade and is now a substance abuse counselor at Burrell Behavioral Health. He showed up for three community policing meetings.
“I’m not against the cops. I knew I did my thing back in the day. I recognize that I have to be accountable for the part I played in my interaction with the cops,” he said. “I think we have to come together in order for this to work out.”
He learned about the power of relationship from former Columbia police officer Cathy Dodd.
He remembers her saying to him, “’What can we do to get you out of where you at?’ She knew our names. She knew who we was,” Haynes said. “And she did her job. She will take you to jail. I have been taken to jail by her. However, she didn’t treat me like I was less than.”
What made Dodd stand out was her professionalism. Haynes said he tries to adopt it in his counseling, and he thinks officers should do the same.
“There is a learning curve,” Haynes said. “That is not on the black person or the white person. That is on the professional.”
Fox pulled him over a few years ago. Haynes laughs when he tells the story — he was a counselor at that point, but he had his music blasting and Cadillac rims on his car. He was a driving stereotype, he said. Fox had cause to pull him over — the music was really loud — but later reached out to Haynes to attend the community policing meetings.
Haynes said he appreciates what Fox is trying to do, and he’s ready to be a part of it.
“If I’m holding onto the past, I won’t be able to develop a new future. If I can get past my bias, my stereotypical thoughts and just open up and say, ‘let’s give this thing a chance,’ that will make the difference on both sides,” Haynes said.
But one side isn’t showing up, he said. Haynes wants to know why Columbia’s black citizens haven’t been coming to the meetings.
“We’re doing all this complaining, where are we at? We’re talking about this community and how we’re treated — let’s get together,” Haynes said. “It needs to be a conversation, and it needs to be all types.”
John Clark has made himself part of the conversation.
Clark is 75 now. He wears suspenders, carries an expanding file folder stuffed with research and keeps extra black pens in his pocket. He’s run for mayor twice on a platform that advocated community policing even back in 2004. He’s come to almost all this summer’s meetings on community policing. He’s a CPA, attorney, nature-lover and activist, and he often references films as examples of culture and society.
His confidence in the trust-building potential of community policing comes in part from a movie: the 2009 political thriller “Endgame,” based on the fall of apartheid in South Africa. In it, as racial intolerance boils over, secret talks between two warring parties build a trust that breaks the impasse.
“Trust is an outcome of people having a mutual relationship in which they feel connected in relatively equal way,” Clark said. He said that trust can grow in Columbia, if people take the time to sit and talk to one another.
One review he’s read of the film puts it best: “Hollywood movies are about heroes and baddies, and this (movie) is about the real world, where nobody is a baddie or goodie,” Clark said, paraphrasing. “There are no heroes and villains. There are complex people in complex situations.”
The conversation about community policing will continue even after Matthes and Fox file their report at the end of August. In the meantime, Davis will wear his penny loafers, Fox will return to supervising a unit he hopes will have positive interactions with people, Rodriguez will walk home, and Haynes will teach his 11-year-old, biracial son that it’s not about the color of your skin. It’s about relationship. It’s about trust. It’s about the endgame.