'Not a passing thing:' Mo. city, police grapple with community policing mandate

Two years ago, Columbia voted to implement community policing practices, but has not put together a formal plan for city approval


Pat Pratt
Columbia Daily Tribune

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Two years ago, the Columbia City Council passed a resolution to implement community-oriented policing practices.

To date, a plan has still not been formally presented for approval. A new draft, the third iteration following the February 2018 mandate, appeared at a December work session with little fanfare.

Columbus Police Chief Geoff Jones (right) prays with officers and church members at the Second Baptist Church. Jones has been working with the city to implement a series of community-based policing policies. (Photo/TNS)
Columbus Police Chief Geoff Jones (right) prays with officers and church members at the Second Baptist Church. Jones has been working with the city to implement a series of community-based policing policies. (Photo/TNS)

The term community policing is loosely defined. At its simplest, it suggests those enforcing the law should have deep ties in the communities they serve as opposed to a reactionary approach.

While the council's mandate was approved in February 2018, the call for such a model stretches back many years.

In an interview Monday with the Tribune, Chief Geoff Jones said he is working toward a community-based approach to enforcing the law.

Some are not so sure, pointing out the delay, recent policy changes and actions by the agency which point to a desire to please officers, rather than follow the will of the people.

Jones said the focus thus far has been on internal culture and organizational restructuring.

The council's mandate was passed a year before he was appointed as interim chief and he did not know he had landed the job until August.

The following month was one of the bloodiest in the city's history, as the new chief found himself facing six homicides in a matter of weeks.

Jones said during his time as interim and since, however, he has been busy laying the groundwork for the transition.

"I talk about mindset, philosophy, getting people all on the same page and knowing what the expectations are," Jones said. "And making some structural changes so people are supervised in a way that would better support the idea of community policing. I am a process person. So first, I had to do those things."

Customer service training for officers, building inclusive communities training for command staff and social media training were also part of his first year, Jones said.

In numerous shift meetings, he has told officers to come to work with a mindset to serve people and solve problems.

"And that I support them in their decision-making to do things for the right reasons," Jones said. "Sometimes they are going to violate policy, but if they are doing it for the right reason and they don't know they are violating policy it's going to be a small mistake. If they do things for the wrong reasons, it's going to be a large mistake."

Jones told the story of an officer who many in the agency look up to as an example of what he expects.

The officer, who Jones said he didn't want to embarrass by naming, is one of the best in the agency, but also one of the kindest and most level-headed.

"He used to be in the SWAT team, he was a college football player, he's lightning fast and super fit, he's humble and he's kind and he treats people the right way," Jones said. "He can chase anybody down. So I ask, does anybody here think he's a bad police officer? He's sitting in the first row kind of blushing. This isn't soft policing. This is good policing."

CoMo for Progress, an advocacy group that bolsters policies focusing on freedom and equity, when asked about the agency's transition efforts, said they recently spoke to Jones about the transition to community policing.

Organizers Kate Canterbury and Rebecca Shaw pointed to questions surrounding the agency's response to a shooting at a downtown restaurant and lounge in early February.

After Vibez security guard Tershawn Kitchen was killed, the lounge blasted the police response as unprofessional and apathetic.

The lounge said police did little to save Kitchen's life as he lay dying on the sidewalk and pushed away another security guard trying to render aid and comfort him.

"Of course we expect officers to secure the area before switching to 'serve' mode of 'protect and serve' but once that was done, was there empathy from these officers for this community, for the dying man on the sidewalk or the traumatized employees?" Canterbury and Shaw said. "In order to address community policing, CPD must first address their cultural competence."

The council mandate of February 2018 also sought to address racial disparities in the agency.

Years of traffic stop data shows black drivers are pulled over by officers at a higher rate than whites.

In community policing, the agency will also have to overcome a historic distrust of law enforcement by many in the black community.

Jones has made some notable moves to foster equity in the agency.

In September, he took a group of officers, civilian staff and members of the community to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, saying he wanted officers to understand the roots of racial division.

In the days and weeks following, the trip spurred many positive conversations within the department.

"Officers were in shift meetings talking about how cool it was to sit there and see this stuff and add content to it they didn't have before," Jones said. "Going through that museum did not put police officers on the defensive. It gave accurate information in context and it gave a perspective not a lot of cops have seen."

A few weeks later, Jones and other administrators watched the PBS special "The Force" with local activists and took questions from the public.

The film was about the Oakland Police Department and focused on a resistance to change.

Jones said part of Oakland's failures stemmed from a lack of policy and training to back the transition, something he has also been focused on in recent months.

"I didn't see much, if any, of that in 'The Force' movie," Jones said. "The person who helped me found the Community Outreach Unit (Lt. Robert Hestir) is now over the training. That was intentional. As much as some people want to take away from how an organizational structure might affect change. It's a pretty key change."

The film's screening was organized by equity group Race Matters, Friends. President Traci Wilson-Kleekamp supported Jones upon his hire and still does.

But recent events have led to questions about his policy decisions, which she said in some cases run counter to a community mindset.

"Community policing is a collaborative form of governance where we decide how we want to be policed," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "We are not practicing a philosophy that engages the community. That's really what this whole project we have been on has been about. We don't want to be Ferguson. At the end of the day, does he believe in collaborative governance?

"He is a nice person and he engages us and I love him to pieces, but what I see here is a pattern of decision outside of community governance."

Wilson-Kleekamp points to the agency's recent failure to provide information for eight days in the case of an officer-involved shooting, the use of video briefings which prevent questions from the media and a recent police chase in which a 17-year-old was killed.

The death of Hayden Holt came following a decision by Jones to loosen restrictions on pursuits over misdemeanor offenses.

"So you had a policy meeting, and you decide to have police chases, even though we had a conversation with you saying we were against it," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "Nobody at that meeting said they were OK with police chases. Only him."

Jones did not defend the still-under-investigation pursuit, although he stood by the policy decision. He said the change was directly related to violence in the community.

"People would flee from us who were involved in shootings, involved in robberies, and we knew it," Jones said. "But because of the observed offense for the traffic violations, or because we didn't have probable cause yet for the shooting, we were letting people go. What we saw over time, and with the culmination this summer, is we had a lot of people die as the result.

"What I refuse to do is to continue letting people prey on other people without us pursuing them, not just in the context of a car, but finding them and bringing them in front of the court."

The use of pursuits to apprehend suspects concerns Jones. He hopes once the word gets out that police will not let fleeing suspects go, they will stop trying to run. He expects the number of incidents to be higher the first year and subsequently drop off.

"I lose a lot of sleep over it," Jones said. "I also recognize the necessity of catching people who are doing bad things. I see the first year being a higher year for pursuits and my hope is then it wanes. This is a process. And we are going to have cops do their own thing and chase people for the wrong reasons and we will deal with that."

The latest draft of the community policing report also touches on school resource officers, and discusses police taking an active role in education and recruitment efforts.

At a recent city council meeting Dr. Laura Wakefield, who owns and operates Columbia-based special education consulting firm Smarter Steps, raised numerous concerns about recent police actions in Columbia Public Schools.

Jones said he shares those same concerns.

Nationwide, administrators and teachers often request police intervention for common childhood behavioral issues and that is something he is trying to curb.

"What has happened over time is the officers get overused because the school is either ill-equipped, ill-trained or just overwhelmed, quite frankly, and they don't know who else to call, not like any other citizen who calls us in their worst hour for something that probably doesn't need to be a police issue in the first place," Jones said.

Jones said agreements that will give him greater latitude in controlling the issue are in the works. He is directing officers that if they do not need to be involved, to not get involved.

He said he is also discussing with juvenile authorities a way to initiate referrals which are not strictly criminal.

"There is a lot in play there," Jones said. "There is not a simple answer. I can tell you it is educating both sides, training both sides, and through some more formal process, setting expectations. I don't want our cops to be the first to call.

"And I don't want to be the last call. I want to be there as a resource and if we need to do something, we do it."

Police in a 2016 officer survey threw shade on the Community Outreach Unit, often touted as a model of what the agency seeks to achieve department wide.

Jones' predecessor Ken Burton would later dub the unit's work as not exciting enough for officers. And the COU at one point was nearly disbanded or "rebranded," depending on which city emails you read.

It survived, and Jones, as one of its original members, says he is using its members to train others across the city. The latest draft shows COU officers assigned to float cars, which will allow them to move beat to beat and train other officers.

However, some argue doing that has caused a loss in the neighborhoods the COU spent time in building relationships.

Matt Akins of police accountability group Citizens for Justice has worked for years with marginalized residents on police concerns, sharing their stories and filming officers in the course of their duties, often drawing the ire of the department.

"In the past, Community Outreach Unit officers were out in Columbia's most vulnerable neighborhoods, building relationships with residents," Akins said. "Since Jones took over as chief, many of those relationships seem to have deteriorated and those boots-on-the-ground efforts have slowed substantially.

"If the Columbia Police Department says they're engaging in 'community policing,' I'm not quite sure which community they are referring to."

Jones, when asked, made clear community policing is alive and well. He said it will take time, but he is wholeheartedly committed and the officers he supervises will be too.

"This is not a passing thing," Jones said he recently told rank and file officers. "This is not something you will wait out. This is how we are going to do business from here on out. And I am going to make sure you are well-equipped. That you are tactically trained so you are safe and that you carry out your job as a police officer both enforcing the law and taking care of people and solving problems that is beneficial to everybody.

"If you don't like that, this isn't the place for you."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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