"We need to get some folks out of the police department,” yelled one person.
This was the common sentiment Monday night at a town hall meeting, where First Ward communities voiced anger with the Columbia Police Department.
The meeting at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church drew a wall-to-wall crowd and gave community members a chance to voice their concerns about a variety of issues. Racial discrimination by police was a hot topic, and many attendees had something to say.
The meeting was sponsored by First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton. Also on hand were Democratic candidates Travis Ballenger, running for the 24th District seat in the Missouri House of Representatives; Linda Jacobsen, running for the 9th District seat in the U.S. House; and Tim Harlan, running for the 19th District seat in the State Senate. No representatives from the Columbia Police Department were on hand.
Crayton said the meeting was designed to lend strength to people who have community concerns but are afraid to speak alone.
“This is a way to sit them side by side and give them strength,” Crayton said. “We have to continue to work together.”
One who spoke was Kenneth Freeman. Freeman said that two weeks ago he was awakened in the middle of the night by a police officer holding a gun and shining a light in his face. The officer, he said, was looking for a man about 5 feet 6 inches tall.
“I’m 6-foot-3,” Freeman said. “I was also sleeping on the second floor of a white person’s home.” Freeman, who is black, said the officer asked for his identification though he didn’t fit the profile of the person the officer was looking for.
“My experiences with police officers have been more negative than positive,” he said.
Another First Ward resident to raise concerns with law enforcement was Shirley Thomas. She said that ten years ago, her husband, Johnny, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for burglary and stealing. He had a parole hearing last May, but was denied parole. Thomas appealed to the parole board to find out why her husband was denied and when he could be granted another hearing. To this day, she said, she has had no response.
“The doors keep closing on us,” Thomas said, adding that they needed more help instead of people “turning a deaf ear.”
Also addressed at the meeting was how police have treated children in the First Ward.
“We have been affected by police unfairly arresting our children,” Dee Carter said.
Her husband, Gary, agreed, comparing central Columbia to an occupied territory.
“Our problems won’t get any better if everyone is treated like a criminal,” he said.
Some parents called for more after-school programs to keep their children off the streets.
“Give the kids something to do,” said one woman. “But someone needs to monitor them.” Many complained of the lack of government dollars going to fund such programs.
Bishop Lorenzo Lawson of Chosen Generations Ministries said the best way to accomplish this change was to mobilize the community when it comes time to vote.
“We need to get some people out there to register to vote,” Lawson said. “That’s power.”
Crayton said that the first step in solving all of these problems is admitting that they exist.
“All the issues are right here in the city of Columbia: classism, racism, and sexism,” Crayton said.
“It is time for a change in the government of Columbia,” one man said. “We have lived by the status quo for too long. The issue is deeper than just police; it is the whole town.”