COLUMBIA — When Columbia Police and community members met Friday evening, they weren't discussing residents' crimes or officers' faults.
Instead, they talked about soccer practice and Thursday night's Miami Heat game while snacking on appetizers. Their children laughed and played with each other.
The two groups gathered in the annex of the Second Baptist Church for the first "Building a Better Community Eat and Greet," hosted by the Bias Free Columbia Coalition. The program offered police officers and residents an opportunity to socialize.
Amid the chatter and laughter, there was a sense of calmness, understanding and hope for change.
The evening began with brief introductions of several coalition members, most of whom serve on other human rights organizations in the city. The group then did an ice-breaker activity. They had to find people with whom they had something in common — the same number of siblings or a shared travel experience, for example. Throughout the rest of the evening, informal conversation flowed.
The conversation echoed a common theme: humanity.
"We're both people," said Steve Monticelli, deputy chief of the Columbia Police Department. He talked about how much police wanted to spend time with community members.
Donald Love, a member of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said the night was about networking. He thought an evening get-together was much better than a lecture could ever be.
"Those don't always work," he said. "There's no dialogue there."
Although the evening was full of laughter, there was a serious purpose behind it. The goal was to make people comfortable talking about issues.
Carmen Williams, pastor at a Christian Methodist Episcopal church, said she saw the evening as a chance for police and community members to come together in a low-pressure environment — usually the only interaction between the two groups is in times of crisis.
"What I hope can happen as a result of this is that people see that Police Chief Ken Burton is doing the best he can with what he has," she said. "Through this effort, he's doing positive things to improve our community."
Although the event was well-attended, Williams also said she wished more minority community members had come.
For Mary Ratliff, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, the evening was chance to create relationships and build trust — two things that are lacking in Columbia, specifically between the black community and the police.
"The fact is, racial profiling is an issue, one that we have not seen a decrease in," she said. "What we need to do is develop and foster a relationship between people — officers, residents, families — and then we can see some good things happen.”
Nancy Browning, a professor emeritus of cultural diversity studies at Lincoln University, pointed out tensions and bias toward several communities — not only the black community but also women and homosexuals.
"This meeting is about recognizing biases," she said. "Everyone has them. We're human. We just need to dialogue and be aware. I want a bias-free everything."