The Columbia Police Department is attempting to own its legacy. Police officers and leadership joined community members to watch a film and discuss race relations Thursday night in an event sponsored by social equity group Race Matters, Friends.
The prompt for the discussion was the film, “The Force,” shown at Ragtag Cinema. It chronicles turmoil in the Oakland Police Department from 2014 to 2016 as a new chief attempts to change what the city's mayor describers as a "toxic, macho" culture and its poor image in the community.
In a Q&A after the film, MU law professor David Mitchell said the moment in the film that stood out to him most was when Oakland pastor and organizer, Ben McBride, addressed new recruits, telling them they had "a high bill,” referencing the history of racist policing in Oakland.
“I heard a lot in the film that ‘It’s difficult to be a police officer,’ and I had a little moment to myself where I said ‘You know, it’s difficult to be a person of color, too,’” Mitchell said.
“(Those statements) are similar, but not the same,” Race Matters, Friends president Traci Wilson-Kleekamp said in response, “because you get a gun and an authority that I don’t get (as an African-American).”
Pastor McBride goes on, in the film, to detail the racially charged origins of policing in America. He connects the impact of past police racism to current perceptions of the police.
“There is a visceral reaction I have when a law enforcement officer pulls up behind me, or is next to me, that shouldn’t be present, but it happens. And it’s like this," Mitchell said, snapping his fingers. "It’s an automatic reaction, its a narrative that pre-defines the relationship.”
Police Chief Geoff Jones responded to Mitchell’s comments.
“There is a bill that has been rung up,” he said, adding that he sees it as a police responsibility to bring down that bill.
Jones said police need to take their role as community caretakers more seriously to generate respect for the police and make law enforcement more effective. He said he has worked to make the philosophy of community policing citywide to instill trust at the lowest level of policing. He said Assistant Chief Brian Richenberger, who was also on hand for the event, is working with lieutenants as part of the department's use of force training on de-escalation, communication and transparency.
Jones said there is an open lieutenant position at the department and asked Sgt. Scott Alpers of CPD’s Internal Affairs to describe how that position will be filled.
“He has told us, if we want to be promoted, we need to show community policing, that we’re engaged with the community.” Alpers said. “If I have to make a decision that doesn’t reflect community policing, if I’m not doing the right things for the right reasons, then I’m no better than (the officers in the film).”
Kleekamp said the issue at hand is not about good people and bad people, or bad cops and good cops; it’s about cultures that are problematic and dysfunctional.
“That’s why we don’t have Chief (Ken) Burton anymore,” she said.
Kleekamp also said that issues Columbia faces today, such as de facto segregation, have been caused by generations of bad decisions by lawmakers and that those decisions make it more difficult for the CPD to do its job today.