“My kids don’t come out of the house to catch the bus until that bus is right there," Aleasha Harris said, pointing across the street from her house on Rice Road. "Not anymore."
Her grandchildren's bus stop sits just across from the yard where Antonio Houston and Danielle Marine were recently found shot to death. A plush bear and withered flowers mark the place.
The day after Houston and Marine's violent deaths, three shots were fired into Harris' house. She and her grandchildren were upstairs. After the summer of 2018, when the sound of gunfire started to become commonplace, her grandchildren learned the routine, she said: "They know to hit the floor."
"I’m packing right now. I’m moving Friday,” Harris said. "I'm scared."
Her landlord has let her out of her lease. But even if he hadn't, "I was gone anyway," she said.
Harris believes police are doing all they can.
So does one of her neighbors, a woman who lives on McKee Street. "It’s not a police issue. It’s a home issue," she said. The recent violence brought back memories of a teen who was shot and killed in McKee Park five years ago. "People need to get their children and look after their children more than they do," she said.
In September, six people were fatally shot in Columbia in 12 days, the greatest number of homicides in one month since 2001, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol data and Columbia Police Department records. That's as far back as easily accessible records go, so it's possible that it's the greatest number of homicides in one month in the city's modern history.
Mayor Brian Treece and Police Chief Geoff Jones held a news conference last week to ask the community for help in solving the crimes. Since then, several arrests have been made. But in some neighborhoods, the desire to speak out is eclipsed by fears of retaliation. It's a trust problem, some say, that has roots in the city's history.
Keeping their heads down
Across town from Harris's northeast neighborhood, fear is also prevalent. In the Douglass Park neighborhood, recent shootings are keeping children inside their homes.
Rose Bradshaw, a Lasalle Place resident, said she doesn't feel comfortable letting her kids play outside anymore. "You’re scared to go to stores, and outside, and ... I try to stay in, mostly."
Bradshaw hasn't been in the neighborhood long, and although she'd like to offer comfort to those touched by the recent crime in her neighborhood, she's anxious about doing it. "Some people around here — they've been affected by the incidents and you want to reach out, but you're scared, and you don't know what to say," she said. "You don't know how people are going to react."
She thinks a neighborhood watch organization, which doesn't currently exist, would help if people were willing to call in when they see something. But they're afraid of retaliation, she said.
Office of Neighborhood Services Liaison Officer Jason McClintic said that there are no registered neighborhood watch members in the area but invited residents to attend Columbia Neighborhood Watch training 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Parkade Elementary School.
A Trinity Place resident put it more bluntly. “Nobody wants to talk to the police," said Shayla, who didn't give her last name. "Everybody wants to stay out of the way in this place."
"A long time ago, (police officers) used to stop and talk to the kids and play with the kids and everything; they don’t do that anymore,” she said.
She said the lack of a police presence in the neighborhood has created an atmosphere of distrust. Without positive police interactions, she said,"a lot of people think they’re just trying to reach their (arrest) quota or something." (Jones said the department has no arrest quota).
Lonnie Anderson, who was visiting Douglass Park on Monday and lives in a different part of town, doesn't just think the police dropped the ball on community policing. "I don’t think they ever had the ball in their hand," he said. "I’m just not seeing it. I’m not seeing any of that out there. I’m seeing old-school tactics."
Officers need to form trusting relationships with community elders and residents with criminal records who've turned their lives around and now want to help strengthen their community, he said. But he doesn't think it's possible with the current size of the police force.
It goes deeper
Carol Drive resident Anthony Carr said the African American community's distrust requires more than simple officer outreach. "I’ll walk into stores here with cash on me, and people will give me certain looks or follow me," he said. "This is a societal stigma. It’s deeper than police."
Carr said although the police are a symbol of mass incarceration to marginalized communities, he trusts that many Columbia Police officers are trying to truly protect and serve.
"When the crime happens, we look to the police because we feel that’s who can take control of the situation, but we all have to take care of these situations as a community," Carr said. "We have to come together as an entire community. That’s the only way."
Columbia police will have to rely on building witness cooperation until they can afford to hire more officers, Treece said in an interview Tuesday. "It’s difficult to have that frequency, that rapport, that attitude, that level of trust when our police officers are going from one 911 call to another, never having the opportunity to interact with their constituents."
City Council just finalized a budget that gives officers with five years of service or more substantial pay raises, which Treece said will help improve officer retention and hiring.
Columbia Budget Officer Laura Peveler said the salary and benefits cost for the pay raise will be $1,245,044. The 2020 change represented a 9.5% increase from the 2019 personnel services budget.
The mayor said, however, that new revenue streams will be needed to hire enough officers to develop frequency and consistency in neighborhood relationship-building.
He also acknowledged the employment disparity for African Americans in Columbia. While most people see Columbia as a progressive community, Treece said, "I struggle with the fact that we seemingly lack an affluent black middle class." It would help at-risk youth to see successful professionals of all races and who could provide community support as mentors.
The interception and intervention of at-risk youth is a necessity to prevent future violence, Treece said, noting that the city has made big investments in the Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbia and teen outreach programs to identify at risk youth.
Not a forever problem
Richard Rosenfeld, a Distinguished Founders Professor and criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said it's important to look at the big picture at a time like this, when Columbia is experiencing a spike in homicides. "As serious as this last month has been — and I don’t want to discount how serious this has been — Columbia does not look to me as if it's on the verge of a long-term relentless increase in homicide or firearm assault."
For example, Rosenfeld said, after Michael Brown was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, homicides and firearm assault rates rose. Firearm assault is a term used to signify someone being shot with a firearm nonfatally; they're indicative of homicides in the long term, he said.
In 2014, there were 61 firearm assaults in Columbia, and that number rose to 162 in 2015. In 2018, only 81 were reported, a 50% drop from 2015.
"What happened this year was probably specific to this year," Rosenfeld said.
One remedy for shootings is community policing, he said.
"Community policing done right is an essential ingredient and effective response to a firearm violence problem," he said. "It's not going to be easy given the staffing shortage you have, but it's going to be essential."
At last week's annual Neighborhood Watch Meeting, Jones said that only five officers started the 6 a.m. shift Wednesday and that only 15 officers were on duty at the height of the day. The activities of the department's Community Outreach Unit remain unclear. "Until we have enough officers, (community policing) will not be citywide,” he said, according to previous Missourian reporting. The COU is no longer supervised by the patrol division but has been reassigned to the special services unit.
Officers also need to focus on hot spot policing, Rosenfeld said. "Especially in those neighborhoods, officers should be out of their cars engaging with people on the street ... officers should be knocking on people’s doors."
Michaela Flores is directly involved in work that could change the dynamic between police and young people who already have complicated feelings about law enforcement. She's an MU student with the Moving Ahead program at 301 N. Providence Road.
The K-8 program uses trauma-informed learning to help children leave their past experiences behind. "This is a place where we help them through expressive arts, do social emotional learning and academic retention for them to be able to grow up in a safe environment and have the skills and resources they need," she said.
Many of the children in the program have had authority figures who didn't keep them safe, which has left them more untrusting in general. “A lot of kids here have personal trauma regarding the police," Flores said. "They know a lot of people in their families who’ve had dangerous and violent or fatal situations with the police, and even though they’re young, they already know that’s something to be wary of."
Moving Ahead strives to ensure that children's past traumas and conflicts with systemic social issues are reconciled so they can develop a better relationship with the justice system. Part of this process is that police officers visit children every couple months, she said, and "they’re slowly starting to build a better relationship, the more they see them here."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.