Pro­fil­ing, tweeted slurs. Why can’t Columbia shake its ugly past?

The Kansas City Star - - Opinion - BY MELINDA HENNEBERGER mhen­[email protected]­star.com

The long­time po­lice chief here, Ken Bur­ton, was sus­pended and then forced out after a whole cat­a­log of com­plaints that in­cluded day drink­ing, in­ac­tion on ra­cial pro­fil­ing and us­ing his of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count to fol­low a site for panty fetishists. (Any guesses on which of those is seen as least rel­e­vant to his ouster?)

Un­like Lawrence, Kansas, or Ames, Iowa, this Mid­west­ern univer­sity town is one with an ugly his­tory of slave­hold­ing and pub­lic lynch­ings. In the last of these, in 1923, an African-Amer­i­can cus­to­dian at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri was mur­dered by a mob after a 14-year-old white girl iden­ti­fied him as her rapist — at a dis­tance of 30 feet, based mostly on the shape of his mus­tache.

A plaque at the bridge where that man, James T. Scott, was hanged is sup­posed to keep us from for­get­ting what hap­pened here. But fresh re­minders, on­line and off, on-cam­pus and off, keep the mem­ory from fad­ing, too. On Jan. 3, which hap­pened to be Chief Bur­ton’s last day on the job, Columbia Po­lice Lt. Brian Tate was sus­pended over a se­ries of tweeted slurs and com­men­tary on how much bet­ter off we’d be if the South had won the Civil War.

The next day, an­other Columbia of­fi­cer was put on leave after she drove up on a side­walk to su­per­vise high school stu­dents board­ing a school bus and ac­ci­den­tally mowed down the driver’s daugh­ter, a 4-year-old African-Amer­i­can girl. And that same day, Jan. 4, a vol­un­teer EMS re­spon­der for Boone County was sus­pended and or­dered to get di­ver­sity and anti-harass­ment train­ing over what of­fi­cials only de­scribed as an in­ap­pro­pri­ate Face­book post. Jim Crow-era at­ti­tudes aren’t even hooded any more, but are shouted on so­cial me­dia.

That’s made de­nial harder work than it used to be in this fast-grow­ing but slow-chang­ing town, which African Amer­i­cans from else­where in Mis­souri know to ap­proach with par­tic­u­lar cau­tion.

“We al­ways think the worst,” says Univer­sity of Mis­souri pro­fes­sor emerita Patty Placier, a mem­ber of the Race Mat­ters, Friends ra­cial jus­tice ad­vo­cacy group, “and then we find out it’s worse than we thought.”

Bur­ton and for­mer City Man­ager Mike Matthes, who re­signed un­der pres­sure in Novem­ber, had re­sponded to the City Coun­cil’s unan­i­mous de­ci­sion to move the Columbia Po­lice Depart­ment into more racially sen­si­tive, 21st-cen­tury com­mu­nity polic­ing prac­tices by do­ing just the op­po­site: They de­layed, ar­gued that that shift would re­quire a tax in­crease, and de­cided to scale back the depart­ment’s well-re­garded Com­mu­nity Out­reach Unit.

At one point, Bur­ton told the lo­cal po­lice re­view board out­right that of­fi­cers don’t want to do com­mu­nity-ori­ented polic­ing be­cause they “tend to get bored” un­less they’re out bust­ing bad guys. Those do­ing the dull work of prevent­ing prob­lems “don’t get any ac­tion, to be hon­est with you,” he said in the ses­sion, which was video­taped. “They want to go in cars and catch bur­glars and do all the things that po­lice of­fi­cers do.”

His de­par­ture, and all of the other re­cent turnover, could be an op­por­tu­nity for Columbia, where of­fi­cials who lost their jobs in 2018 also in­cluded the deputy city man­ager, whose po­si­tion was elim­i­nated, and the Columbia Pub­lic Schools CFO, who re­signed after be­ing charged with a felony. But will their per­ma­nent re­place­ments be any more likely to ad­dress the past in­stead of just re­peat­ing it?

“You’re go­ing to keep on get­ting the same thing,” says Bill Davis, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer from Mont­gomery, Alabama, who in his first year on Columbia’s Cit­i­zens Po­lice Re­view Board came to see the racism of lo­cal of­fi­cers as even more pro­nounced than in his home­town.

In video­taped ev­i­dence to back up com­plaints that the board re­viewed, said Davis, who is AfricanAmer­i­can, “I watched po­lice talk down to cit­i­zens” and rou­tinely say “very neg­a­tive things” about, among oth­ers, for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, lo­cal ra­cial jus­tice ac­tivists and women judges. And if you’ve filed a for­mal com­plaint about any­thing a lo­cal cop has done in re­cent years, there’s a good chance that it was Brian Tate, the now-sus­pended po­lice lieu­tenant who made no se­cret of his big­oted views on Twit­ter, who looked into your al­le­ga­tions.

Both can­di­dates in April’s may­oral elec­tion ac­knowl­edge that the Columbia Po­lice Depart­ment is over­due for an over­haul. But the in­cum­bent, Brian Treece, is a for­mer lob­by­ist for the Mis­souri Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice. And his op­po­nent, 72-year-old Chris Kelly, a for­mer state leg­is­la­tor who deleted most of his old tweets be­fore launch­ing his cam­paign, wouldn’t seem to be a likely ad­vo­cate for re­form, ei­ther.

Dur­ing a run a decade ago, Kelly apol­o­gized for jok­ing that a fe­male can­di­date’s cam­paign slo­gan should tout her “nice butt.” “It’s sadly the kind of thing I say,” he told re­porters at the time. “I know who I am.”

Still, Kelly seems to know who Columbia cops are, too: If elected, he said at a re­cent cam­paign event, “I will make sure that the peo­ple who are ter­ri­fied that their kids are go­ing to be killed by po­lice are in­volved in the hir­ing” of the next chief. “AfricanAmer­i­can peo­ple in Columbia, Mis­souri, they feel afraid of the po­lice depart­ment ... We have to look for a chief who’s go­ing to be com­mit­ted to chang­ing that.”

When Columbia starts ex­pect­ing more from its of­fi­cials and its po­lice depart­ment, it will get it.

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