I spend a lot of time in a state of confusion about one thing or another, so I felt perfectly normal, if a little stiff from sitting so long, when I left city hall Wednesday night.
Along with a handful of journalists and a few interested citizens, I had listened appreciatively as the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence got itself organized. Twelve of the 13 appointed members, plus City Council member co-chairs Michael Trapp and Laura Nauser, turned out.
They’re an impressive bunch, with an array of experience in dealing with at-risk youngsters, ex-offenders and — in the person of Jerry Taylor, CEO of MFA Oil — convenience store customers. Councilman Trapp set a collegial tone, expressing his “bias toward consensus.”
As they introduced themselves, task force members repeatedly stressed the seriousness of our problem and the depth of their commitment to addressing it. Nauser even felt it necessary to emphasize that the group intends to focus on the causes and remedies of violence and not on broader issues. I interpreted that to mean they won’t try to grapple with the pathologies of poverty and racism.
A couple of members suggested that rather than aim for one comprehensive report in November 2014, the task force should identify some “low-hanging fruit” and announce any quick and obvious actions as soon as possible.
After the meeting, Councilman Trapp told Missourian reporter Tim Maylander that an acknowledgement that Columbia has a gang problem might be a piece of low-hanging fruit. But he cautioned that “practical policy recommendations” are likely to require considerable time and effort.
The task force decided, by consensus, to launch its work by bringing to the Sept. 11 meeting proposed research questions that will be organized and prioritized for attention.
To me, the foundation-level research question is this: Just how much of a violence problem do we have, anyway?
Another meeting, which began one floor down and one hallway east just after the task force adjourned, provided some answers to that question. If any task force members had sat in on that session, they might have come to share my confusion.
This was the first of a planned series called “Ward Check-In.” It featured City Manager Mike Matthes and several of his department heads explaining their work to more than two dozen listeners, most of them from the First Ward and nearly all of them fully engaged.
Matthes led off with what he called “lots of good news” about crime in Columbia. “You may have heard,” he said with a touch of sarcasm, that ours is a dangerous city. Not so.
In fact, he said, Columbia’s crime rate has been dropping for 20 years. So far, 2013 crime is running below the rate last year. All the homicides have been solved. “Columbia is a safe place,” he insisted.
A bit later in the proceedings, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton and Lt. John Gordon, whose area of responsibility covers the First Ward, provided more detail and explanation.
Lt. Gordon said in the First Ward, which covers the city’s center, homicides, robberies, assaults and burglaries are all down from years past. In the previously troubled, and troubling, Douglass Park neighborhood, two officers dedicated to getting to know the area and its residents have even identified the shooter in the most recent incident of gunfire, he said.
He and the chief stressed the success of that “community-style policing,” while noting that it is labor intensive and takes officers away from responding to some of the 72,000 calls for service the department received last year.
Chief Burton defended his dislike of the aggressive “stop and frisk” approach preferred in some jurisdictions. That puts officers into conflict with innocent people, he said. “We like to pick on the right people.”
So here’s the nub of my latest confusion. If crime is down, including the categories classified as violent crime, can “community violence” be up? If “community violence” isn’t crime, what is it? Are the crime-fighting professionals and the violence-studying task force somehow talking past each other?
If I were on the task force, I’d want an early and public conversation with Chief Burton and his commanders. Maybe that would resolve my confusion.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.