There was “an elephant in the room” at Wednesday’s meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence, Steve Calloway told his fellow members.
The elephant’s name is race.
As I listened to task force members and a three-man delegation from the Columbia Police Department discuss violent crime and its roots in gangs and drugs, I was struck by how much more willing the black members of the group were to identify the elephant than were their white colleagues.
Most outspoken on the subject was task force member Pamela Hardin. She responded when Detective Jon Logan lamented the unwillingness of witnesses to cooperate in investigations of assaults or homicides. The police, he said, are working hard to develop trust with residents of high-crime neighborhoods.
Ms. Hardin replied, “In the African-American community, the trust factor is very low.” She cited an unsolved homicide of a young black man and the experience of another who spent three months in jail before being freed without charges.
“You’re seeing it from one end; we’re seeing it from the other end,” she added. Later in the meeting, she returned to that theme. “We feel the way we feel because we’re dealing with police officers based on experience.”
Her conclusion: “We’ve got to admit there’s a problem before we can solve it.”
Ms. Hardin, the daughter of longtime NAACP leader Mary Ratliff and herself vice president of the local NAACP chapter, said that every black male has had a negative experience with the police. (So has she. In 1996, she and her mother were both arrested and charged with interfering with police officers who were trying to question her 8-year-old son. Her conviction was later thrown out by the Court of Appeals.)
Another black task force member, Chris Campbell, recounted that he had been pulled over for no apparent reason while driving his son to football practice. His son, he said, no longer trusts police.
The three white police officers – Patrol Commander Brian Richenberger, Detective Logan and patrol Officer Andy Meyer, who works the area surrounding Douglass Park – stepped lightly around the elephant.
Columbia’s “culture of criminality,” Detective Logan said, “transcends race.” Responding to questions, though, he noted that most of the city’s gang members are African-American. One gang, he said, is Hispanic and a small one is made up of white motorcycle riders.
Numbers spoke even more directly.
Capt. Richenberger showed a slide that identified the victims and suspects in Columbia homicides since 2008. Of the 20 victims, 12 were black males under the age of 30. Of the 30 suspects, 23 were black males. All but four of them were between 16 and 25 years old.
About 11 percent of Columbia’s population is black.
One black member of the task force looked at those numbers and spoke the obvious conclusion: “We’ve got black men killing each other.”
Detective Logan, observing that “we have a gang issue for sure,” said the city’s three or four active gangs begin recruiting boys at the age of 12 or so. Gang members “age out” in their mid-20s, he said. Sometimes that’s because they’re in prison. Others mature and move on. Criminality and gang membership tend to be passed down from generation to generation in some families.
In the “no-snitch culture,” he said, young men see it as “cool” to carry guns, deal drugs and distrust the police.
Task force member Tyree Byndom disagreed. “I see desperation in these young men. I don’t see cool.” The police, he said, are not really plugged into the “African-American community conversation” but are primarily reactive.
As the discussion wound down, a black preacher spoke up. The Rev. Martin Hardin argued that rather than hiring more police officers, the city should put its money into providing services and training mentors for youngsters at risk. Teenaged boys, especially, need male role models, he said.
At its next meeting, the task force hopes to hear from representatives of the Columbia Public Schools. The most recent test scores suggest that the elephant of race lurks in the classroom, too.
Whether the issue is violence or poverty or education, we ignore the elephant at our peril. We in the white majority, on the task force and in the larger community, are going to have to learn to talk as honestly about race as the black members of the task force did Wednesday night.
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.