As a young police officer patrolling the streets of the First Ward in the mid-1980s, Capt. Marvin “Moon” McCrary was often met with wary eyes, insults and indifference from residents.
He remembers people accusing him of being a sellout, calling him “Uncle Tom” and saying he was a black man obeying his master’s orders.
His most vivid memory is of those who wouldn’t speak to him because they were disgusted with the idea of a black police officer. They saw him as a traitor.
Today, McCrary, who is Columbia’s first black captain, is in charge of managing the same streets where he began his career. But as he prepares to retire at the end of the year, McCrary is once again hearing the same insults.
He has been criticized by community leaders and residents in the First Ward and Douglass Park area for his lack of understanding of the community and aggressive police tactics, contributing to what some say is a disconnection between the community and the police.
“Race shouldn’t be an issue, but it is,” said McCrary, who grew up in a black neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn., and as a child was taught to dislike the police.
“Just because I’m black and in this position don’t mean I’m going to sit down and let people just take over,” McCrary said, who is marking 20 years in law enforcement in Columbia. Neighborhoods located around the Douglass Park area in the First Ward have the city’s highest crime rate and are home to many blacks.
McCrary has been the West District Commander for seven years. During that time, the department has steadily increased the number of police officers patrolling the west end of the First Ward. There are nine officers assigned to Beat 50 and six for Beat 55 — more than any of the other 16 beats in the city. McCrary said he instructs officers patrolling beats 50 and 55 to be more “proactive” and use any “probable cause” to make a traffic stop. He believes his tactics have helped keep a lid on crime and have given the police a better understanding of the community than they had 10 years ago.
There was a time when neither police officers nor community residents would direct a word to each other, he said, adding that the relationship is improving.
Residents seek understanding
First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton said police tactics have alienated residents in her ward.
In and around her neighborhood, it is rare to see officers patrolling the streets on foot.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said the department encourages officers to patrol on foot, but it is up to the officers to decide if they walk or drive. He acknowledged that it is difficult for officers to patrol on foot because of the number of calls they receive and time constraints. Driving is more efficient, he said.
In addition to feeling alienated, Crayton said, people have complained about being repeatedly stopped by the police. The stops have resulted in more arrests, she said, but also have contributed to complaints of police harassment.
“There is a lot of animosity toward the police, a lot of mistrust.” she said.
Sitting on her front porch on Oak Street, Crayton recalls violence between youths and police erupting in front of her house on a spring day in the mid-1990s.
“You will be surprised how fast it can go from quiet to out of control,” Crayton said. “It just takes one little thing.”
In an effort to get First Ward residents to speak out about their experiences with the police and find ways to ease tensions, Crayton has organized a series of town hall meetings that began in late April.
One of the initiatives is partnering with local businesses to find jobs for youths to get them off the streets during the summer. When teens have nothing to do during the summer, Crayton said, they can run into trouble.
Efforts also are being made to increase the reach of programs such as the Career Awareness Related Experience, which helps at-risk youths get summer jobs.
“My goal is not to fight with the police, but to deal with them,” Crayton said.
Though relations between the First Ward community and the police have been averse at times, McCrary said the latest statistics show his tactics are working and the relationship between police and the community is improving.
Compared to five years ago, crime in this section of the city has declined in several categories. Police reports from Beat 50 show that assaults have declined 22 percent and robberies have declined 6 percent. The last murder in this area occurred in February 2002. But the number of aggravated assaults, which is more serious than assault and can include use of a deadly weapon, has increased 30 percent.
McCrary said officers attend neighborhood meetings and participate in activities such as the Douglass Park cleanup, Moonlight Hoops and Neighborhood Watch meetings.
“I can guarantee you that our efforts in the area have done quite a bit,” said McCrary. “And if we were not there, if I decrease the quantity of officers in that area, it would be an outcry.”
Vernon Forbes, cofounder of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, said efforts made by the community itself have discouraged crime in the area. Sitting in a rocking chair at his home on Grand Avenue, where he has lived for 18 years, Forbes said police officers tend to show up only when a crime has already been committed.
“They don’t try to stop it; they wait until it happened,” Forbes said. “We cleaned up the neighborhood. Thecops didn’t,” he said.
Forbes said the police are out of touch with residents. “What we have now is police containment instead of crime prevention,” he said.
Beulah Ralph, 77, said the days when community residents offered police officers lemonade and children waved at passing cops are long gone.
Ralph is a leader in the community and works as the director of Columbia’s Home School Communicators program. She said she makes it her business to keep in touch with the police department.
The police department “has to build a relationship with the community,” said Ralph, who has lived in Columbia most of her life.
“We have requested that we would like to see officers walk the area,” Ralph said. “If officers walk the streets and get to know the people, hopefully tension would decrease.”
In recent years, police and the community have drifted apart, Ralph said. Both urgently need to get together, she said, “or else we are going to have trouble this summer.”
“I will hate for a kid to get killed or a police officer to get killed,” she said as a distant siren drifted into her office in Douglass High School.
Kim Linzie was a 19-year-old black woman and First Ward resident who was shot to death in front of Stephens College by a white police officer during a car chase in 1985.
Her death created outrage in the black community and ignited a series of violent clashes between First Ward residents and police.
Her family and community leaders distributed “Keep it cool for Kim” T-shirts in an effort to ease tensions.
But simmering anger finally boiled over one summer night in 1986 in Douglass Park. Two hundred people, mostly young black men, pelted police officers with rocks and bottles. Half of the police department’s officers, dressed in riot gear, marched down Providence Road and confronted the crowd with smoke bombs and clubs.
City officials promptly created a task force to improve the Douglass Park area and ease racial tensions.
The police chief at the time, Bill Dye, came under heavy criticism from the Douglass area community and the City Council.
Council members said police were not tough enough; residents said officers were too violent.
Dye, Columbia’s first and only black police chief, resigned a year later after serving for five years. Raymond Linzie, 82, said people in the Douglass Park area still talk about his granddaughter’s death.
“They still remember her,” the soft-spoken Linzie said.
Linzie, who lives in the Indian Hills area in northeast Columbia, said his granddaughter’s death remains an open wound in the black community.
“I tell people to watch out for their kids,” Linzie said. “It could happen again.”
Bill Thompson, vice-president of the Douglass Area Coalition, said he’s afraid of how police officers might treat his 12-year-old son when he is out walking near the family’s house on Garth Avenue.
Thompson said other parents are also worried about police officers stopping and questioning their children.
Parents and kids are losing respect for the police, Thompson said, and the department should make an effort to change that mentality.
“It’s not enough to have hot dogs during the summer,” said Thompson, referring to police-organized cookouts in Douglass Park. “I’m sure the police will prefer to see young people happy to see them rather than the way they feel presently.”
He said officers need to get out of their cars and get to know residents of the community.
Boehm said there is always the potential for clashes to occur between the police and residents, but he said it is less likely because of his department’s outreach efforts.
Boehm, who has been on the force for 28 years, stands behind McCrary and said his tactics are producing results.
“He is someone who shares my management style,” Boehm said. “I think that the majority of the community feels that the police department does a great job.”
Boehm was a sergeant during the 1986 riot. Since then, he said, the police department has changed, providing officers with cultural diversity training and increasing the recruitment of minority officers.
Officers attend a mandatory eight-hour class on diversity every other year, Boehm said.
Police are not “targeting” the First Ward community, Boehm said. Rather, they are meeting the needs of an area that makes by far the most calls for service than any other in the city.
Data provided by Boehm show that during 2003, nearly 20 percent of the police department’s service calls came from residents of Beat 50 and Beat 55. From the first of this year through May 1, there were 4,255 calls from those beats.
“We are constantly trying to find that balance to where we have enough police presence to address the issue, but yet not so much that people feel that we are overly aggressive or saturating a particular area,” Boehm said.
He said the department doesn’t receive a lot of complaints from residents in beats 50 and 55 about police misconduct.
However, Boehm said he was surprised to hear a number of complaints from residents at an April 26 First Ward town hall meeting organized by Crayton.
“It always concerns me when there appears to be a segment of the community that we may not be reaching appropriately,” he said.
Boehm said Crayton asked him to keep officers from attending the meeting, on the belief that residents would speak more freely without police present.
But after talking to some people who were at the event, he said, residents should feel free to come forward if they have any complaints of an officer misconduct. He said it’s something his department takes very seriously.
During the meeting at St. Luke United Methodist Church on Ash Street, resident after resident took the microphone to describe what they called police harassment, provoking applause and cheers.
These are the same kind of stories that Bishop Lorenzo Lawson is used to hearing.
Lawson preaches at Chosen Generations Ministries, a nondenominational church in public housing. He said his cell phone often rings with members of his congregation asking him for advice on how to deal with encounters with police.
“There is not trust in the police system,” said Lawson, 50, who grew up in the area’s public housing and spent most of his youth running from the law.
Police need to know their beats better, he said, and some of the officers who patrol the beat should live there to better understand the community.
He said the crime problem is far from being over if the police don’t change tactics.
“People are always thinking, ‘When will they come and arrest me?’” Lawson said. McCrary and Boehm said they cannot force officers to live in a particular area. They have the freedom to live anywhere inside Boone County.
Nathan Stephens, a social worker employed by Grass Roots Organizing, a local nonprofit that assists families living in poverty, witnessed the 1986 riot as a teenager. He said anger is building among youth in the community, just like it did 18 years ago.
“I’m telling you another riot will happen this summer,” the First Ward resident said. “Things need to change; it’s just not working.”
Larry McBride talks fast when he recalls how many times police officers have stopped him while driving — seven times during January and February, he said.
Sitting beside his mother in his house on Pendleton Street, the 46-year-old recovering crack cocaine addict who has a long record of petty theft said he is trying to rebuild his life.
He said he has been drug-free for three years and is a deacon at the Chosen Generation Ministries. He said at times it seems like officers patrolling the streets are out to get him, and they haven’t always given him a clear reason for his traffic stops, which he describes as “harassment.”
He said he knows others who are repeatedly stopped by the police.
“I don’t think it is fair at all,” McBride said. “Bothering people is not doing their job.”
McBride said that since his pastor mentioned his complaints at a recent City Council meeting, the traffic stops have ended.
Making an effort
Police officer Sterling Infield holds the steering wheel of his patrol car with one hand and with the other quickly types into the computer the license plate number of the car in front of him. He knows the car is not from the area.
“You may not get to know the people by name, but you know their faces,” said Infield, while glancing at passing cars and listening to the fuzzy voice coming over his police radio.
Being a police officer in the Douglass Park community, Infield said, is “a double-edge sword.”
He said it is difficult to keep all residents happy and perform his job at the same time. “If people can tell us a better way to do our job — I will do it,” he said.
Infield asked to be assigned to Beat 50 and has patrolled these streets at night for four years.
“I go to where I can do the most good,” said Infield, who wrote a paper about racial profiling while studying for a master’s in criminal justice. “Maybe we can accomplish something here.”