COLUMBIA — Based on remarks he made Wednesday, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton seems to have changed his mind about whether officers in the department are racially profiling drivers.
In the past, Burton had dismissed allegations of racial profiling by Columbia police, according to previous Missourian reporting. However, at the department's quarterly meeting with the news media, Burton sounded more sympathetic to those who have expressed concern over racial profiling.
“Somebody said, ‘I’m afraid for my 19-year-old son who got off work at 11 o’clock and gets stopped by the police, that he’s going to be killed by the police.’ And my first reaction to that is why in the world would you think that he’s in danger?” Burton said. “But then you look at instances around the country, and I have to admit to you that if I were African-American and I had a 19-year-old son, I think I’d probably be worried about it as well.”
The city is scheduled to host a public town hall meeting on the subject of racial profiling in Columbia at 6 p.m. Jan. 30, in Conference Room 1A/1B of City Hall. Burton and City Manager Michael Matthes will attend.
Columbia police officers were three times as likely to pull over black drivers as they were white drivers in 2015, according to a report released last year by Attorney General Chris Koster.
Tara Warne-Griggs, a member of Race Matters, Friends — a group that has applied public pressure on Burton and the police department in the past year over the issue — said Burton's comments signaled a possible shift.
"That's a big difference," she said. "It sounds like he's starting to pay attention to the larger context outside Columbia."
Burton said that he has a better understanding of why people feel the way they do after listening to stories from people who’ve been targeted because of their race.
“I think I said pretty loudly that I didn’t believe that Columbia officers racially profile,” Burton said. “I’ve always recognized that there was a possibility, but there is no evidence that we’ve been able to see.
"What we’re trying to do now is to find out if there’s another way to look at the data, another way to examine those issues when those allegations do come forward, to determine whether or not racial profiling is occurring,” he said.
The Columbia Police Department met with several groups, such as Race Matters, Friends, last year. Burton said he hopes to continue the conversation of racial profiling at the upcoming meeting and to potentially offer solutions.
Warne-Griggs said Race Matters, Friends was not notified ahead of time about the town hall meeting at the end of the month. She said she wished department officials had reached out to help plan the meeting together.
Burton could have involved the community and shown he's changing the way the police department approaches its interactions with the community, she said.
"There's been some progress, and I want to give them credit for that," Warne-Griggs said. "But meaningful change and behavior has not happened yet. ... There are folks in town who could have helped them with that."
At the media meeting, Burton acknowledged that the conversation is necessary, especially with recent national events on the subject. He would not specify which events he had in mind.
“I’m very proud that we don’t have the kinds of issues we see in other parts of the country,” Burton said. “But if there is a belief that officers are racially profiling on somebody’s behalf, then that’s their belief and they have a right to it. So I think it needs to be addressed.”
He said he felt individual police officers who have made "bad decisions” across the country are to blame for negative perceptions of police officers in recent years. Burton said it’s his and other officers' duty to assure the public that they're not like those officers.
“I learned some things by listening," Burton said, "and now I have a different attitude than I had four or five months ago about where we are with race relations in the city of Columbia."
Supervising editor is Sky Chadde.