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Q&A: Police Chief Ken Burton talks about racial profiling, community policing and why he's so frustrated

  • 30 min to read
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton speaks to media

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton speaks to media about the state of policing in June 2016.

Each year, with the release of traffic stop data by the Missouri Attorney General's Office, the problem of racial profiling comes into sharper focus — and validates the suspicions of people who say they've been pulled over because of the color of their skin. Community groups like the NAACP and the newer Race Matters, Friends, have asked Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton to, first, acknowledge the problem and then take steps to solve it.

Not so fast, Burton has said in response to part one. His response — frustrating to some people — has been: "We need more, better data." But at the same time, the chief has taken steps he believes should reduce racial profiling, if, indeed, it's a problem among Columbia cops.

Here's what the numbers in the 2015 and 2016 reports showed: In 2015, black drivers were stopped 3,348 times, and that represented a rate 3.6 times higher than the rate at which white drivers were pulled over. In 2016, black drivers were stopped 3,691 times — a rate 3.9 times higher than the rate at which white drivers were pulled over.

The problem with the data, Burton has said repeatedly, is that it doesn't go deep enough. He cites evidence from his own mini-study of the 15 cops who had the greatest racial disparity in their traffic stops last year: In each case, he says, there's a good reason for the disparity. Maybe geographical location in the city. Or the officer's specific assignment. 

What the data don't reveal is racism by Columbia cops, he says.

That's the sticking point for Race Matters, Friends, who have said that a police chief who can't acknowledge what is plain to see has no business in the job and no business asking the community to support funding for more cops. 

Without more funding, though, expanding the department's community police efforts is impossible, Burton says.

But don't call it an "impasse," the chief pleads. The department and the community are just seeing the same problem through different lenses. And there's hope. But what needs to take place is a quieter, kinder conversation that recognizes that everyone has the same goal: to make Columbia a better place for everyone to live.

Burton talked to the Missourian last week about the non-impasse, the data, why he needs to analyze it more thoughtfully and why he's so frustrated with the direction the conversation has taken. (The conversation has been edited to tighten the focus on racial profiling and community policing.)

Representatives of the Police Department field questions

Brian Richenberger and Jeremiah Hunter, assistant chiefs of the Columbia Police Department, and Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton take questions from Race Matters, Friends about community policing in October 2016.

Q: What is your perception of the traffic stop data, and why do you have reservations about it?

A: When I start to talk to folks like Race Matters, Friends and those folks, when I say that I don’t believe the numbers support what they’re saying, they start yelling. They are not hearing what I am about to say. I have never once said that racial profiling doesn’t exist in policing, never once. And the reason I don’t say that is because I don’t know what’s in a person’s heart. I could very well have a number of officers on the department or none of the officers on the department that are engaging in things based on race and they don’t even realize it. So, it would be implicit bias. I think that it’s also a possibility that you have an openly racist officer out there that at least is openly racist to his friends and family and then is using that to influence their decision making. But in order to prove that you have to know what’s in that person’s heart.

When this first happened, we started talking about it. I told my crime analysts to take the top 15 officers that have a disparity index in traffic stops. I don’t want to hear names yet. I want you to analyze them, I want you to tell me when they were working, where they were working, give me all the details.

So very quickly it jumped off the page at us, especially with No. 1 because this particular officer had made 12 traffic stops and they were all black males and they were all in the same area of town. As we got to looking at it a little bit further … the officer in question was working an overtime assignment in an area of the city where we had been experiencing shootings with black males shooting at black males. So, he was put out there on overtime to saturate — we call them saturation patrols — and they were put out there for the specific purpose of trying to identify who’s doing the shooting. So, he made 12 traffic stops, they were all 12 black males. It turned out he was a sergeant, so he generally doesn’t make traffic stops that often. He did it on the overtime assignment. So, here’s all these good reasons why this happened when you look at it. We also looked at the geography. When you look at the geography of the city and you look at the activity, if you had a way to look at the time-lapse map of the city, you would see as the day goes on during the day we have calls all over the map. The later it gets at night — particularly after 10 p.m. — those calls come toward the center of the city. So where do all the cops go? Toward the center of the city because that’s where the calls are occurring. So, if you look at it based on a time and date where the activity is occurring, it’s where most people are up, which is in the central part of the city downtown. My argument against the (Attorney General’s) numbers is that they don’t go far enough. If you want us to do a deep analysis of this, give us the resources and I’m talking about our state legislature. I contracted with a university professor back in Texas that took my data for my departments and then went in to it and did the deeper analysis and guess what, nobody said I was racially profiling. Nobody said our department was racially profiling.

What are the additional factors that you would have to look at in the data when you say 'go deeper'?

When you look at the data that we do collect we get the age, sex, and race, and that is whatever the person tells us. If you can’t tell, then they’re white. It’s just very basic information, what the violation was for and actually some information that I do not think is needed. We go into a lot of detail looking for information on what we actually did with the stop. Why does that matter? If we make the stop for an equipment violation or if we make the stop for a moving violation, does it matter if we write the person a ticket or not? No, it doesn’t. But it requires us to gather that data, and to me that’s not relevant. Why we made the initial stop is what’s relevant. Now you could go in and make the argument and say, what if you’re actually giving tickets to one group over the other? That’s a real possibility. But if you’re talking about from a racial profiling standpoint, all you need is why you’re making a stop. One of the things that you’ll find also is that the level of poverty in the African-American community is much higher percentage wise in Columbia than the poverty level for Caucasians or other races. And you got to look at the way police officers look at the law. If you’re driving down the street and you have a taillight out, and you get stopped for that taillight — first, you’re going to notice the taillight and you’re going to get it fixed. Somebody that’s in poverty might not have the money to get it fixed. So, you’re African American, you get stopped, it’s a taillight which in the overall scheme of things is pretty trivial. What else are you going to think? He stopped me because I’m black, not because I had a taillight out. I completely get it from that perspective, why people would feel that way. But, if the traffic violation exists, we have to give the officer the benefit of the doubt that that’s why he stopped the person.

Add that to my almost 40 years of police experience … I was a traffic ticket-writing machine. I worked traffic enforcement for many years. … Did I know the race of the driver before I stopped them? You’re stopping at night sometimes and you don’t see until you get up to the window if it’s a male or female or who’s in the car. It’s next to impossible to try it in traffic, if you’re driving around the city, to identify the race of the people. A very small percentage of the time, you’ll be able to do it.

So if that’s true then let’s give the officers the benefit of the doubt, which a lot of people don’t want to do because of their own personal experiences and beliefs, I get it. But if those violations are in existence — that taillight is out, that license plate is out, that registration is expired, that inspection sticker is expired, that’s the reason the person is being stopped and it does not prove profiling. Even if the person behind the wheel happens to be black or Hispanic or Asian or whatever. So I think the biggest problem here is that we’re not just talking past each other, we’re looking at this through two different lenses. And I find it very difficult for me to accuse somebody of being a racist or racially profiling when I can’t show you it’s happening. I have no issue, if I have an officer that I think is racially profiling I’ll correct it. But those numbers do not prove it.

They really want you to say the words.

They want me to say the words, and when I don’t, they don’t want me to have an opinion that’s different from their own. I have a right to my opinion. Mine happens to be different from theirs. I respect theirs, I think they should respect mine. And realize there’s two different lenses here that we’re looking through. I’m the police chief, I’m looking at it from a lens of having to satisfy all stakeholders. How far would I go if I said, “Yup, we got a racist department, every one of my cops is out there racially profiling.” I’d have a mutiny. Especially, how the hell do you know? How do you know that? You’re accusing me of being a racist, you’re accusing me of making stops based on race alone. Were you in the car with me? I’m looking for proof of it. When I ask my analysts to look for that and we go through that data, I’m looking for a reason to say we have a problem here.

Chief Ken Burton sits at his desk surrounded by work and memorabilia

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton sits at his desk surrounded by work and memorabilia in April 2016.

Tell me about the data you gathered one more time. You looked at the 15 officers that had the highest disparity index. And in every single one of those cases, were there factors that were confounding factors? Some other reason?

Yes. The area of the city where they worked. And there is something else that a lot of people don’t realize. Our cops do not have a lot of time to make discretionary traffic stops. Unless we put them on a special assignment out there, they are going from call to call to call. So if somebody calls us and says there’s a suspicious person on my street and it’s an African-American male, why would we look for a white man? We are going to look for what they said is suspicious. So you’re going to go in there and see that you find 90 percent of our calls we’re going to base it on the race of the person that’s described to us.

The public is racially profiling?

I don’t believe that. I don’t think it's even that. I think it's gone back even years before that. I think it's gone back to the ’90s. When we had gangs coming out of Chicago and we had gangs coming out of California, they were all coming to Texas, and I supervised the gang unit. I know damn well they were profiling. Three young black men standing on the corner was a gang. Even if they were just standing there. And if it’s in your neighborhood, you called saying I have gang members on my street. So the police respond. How do you think the kids respond to us? "I’m not a gang member." But we’re being told that this is a gang member. You’re in this neighborhood and this person says you’re acting suspicious. Well, what’s suspicious? Standing on the corner?

The people that have stopped and listened to me and stopped and talked to me. One of them is (NAACP President) Mary Ratliff. And if you get an opportunity, I’d go and talk to her. I took a pretty good beating for reaching out to her when I first came here. ’Cause I said I want this lady to be my friend for no other reason so that we can sit down and talk about things. And she’ll tell you today that she does not agree with everything I say, and I don’t agree with everything she says. But we have been able to establish a dialogue where she can go and she goes "I don’t think that’s right," and I can say, "Well, I don’t think that’s right," and here’s why and we can have a discussion — and it’s a civil discussion — and at the end of the night, we’re still friends. And the reason for that is because she wants I think what’s best for the community. I don’t think she has any hidden agendas. I think she’s just wanting things to be better. Which is exactly what I want. So we have the same goals. And when people will give you the time and you can sit down and they talk with you and let you explain where you’re coming from…

You know I have not denied that (racial profiling) is possible. I don’t believe it’s happening, and I don’t see evidence of it happening without delving much deeper into the data that we have, which I simply don’t have the resources to do. So when our hand is forced, I’ll tell Jerry to drop everything else that he’s doing. The crime that’s going on that you’re trying to analyze in the city. Drop all that and let’s work on this and see if we can come up with something. And the problem is that I believe we have the vast majority of our officers going out there and doing the best job they know how, and they’re not using racism as a basis. And as I said before, is it possible that we have some closet racists out there? Yeah. And I think those are the ones that we need to ferret out of the organization. But in order to do that, we’re going to have to have proof, and just saying that those numbers prove it and screaming about it isn’t going to change anything.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton sits in a pew

From left, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton sits in a pew alongside City Manager Mike Matthes and Mayor Brian Treece on Aug. 22 at the NAACP forum in Second Baptist Church’s sanctuary.

I want to go back to what you said about Mary Ratliff and how you feel that you both have the same goals…

I’ve learned so much from her. Because we were talking one night and she’s actually used this because I used it. We were talking one night and we were talking and I said “What do you expect Mary? It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and an officer sees four kids in a car. They’ve got their headlights off, and they’re driving down the street. (The officer is) naturally going to think there’s trouble, and he’s going to investigate why these kids are out at 2 o’clock in the morning." She says, "Well, stop right there.” She says, “Do you know why four boys are in the car at the same time?” I said no, and she said "probably because only one can afford a car.” And that was an epiphany for me. Because I said I never looked at it that way. It makes absolute sense because I remember hauling around the boys that I ran around with in high school that didn’t have a car.

You feel that you share an agenda of wanting the community be better?

Yes. Right.

But you don’t feel that way about Race Matters, Friends?

I feel like their agendas are different, and let me tell you something: As a group, I have talked to individuals that are in that group that I thought was very productive. I thought, OK, why would these four or five middle-aged white women be in this room and be so passionate? When you start talking to them, you find out that one of them adopted two African-American children. Talked to another one and she happens to be married to an African-American man. And I start saying, OK, now I get it. But didn’t get it until I sat down and learned about them.

White people generally have a stake in resolving racism in our society, whether or not they have a black husband or have adopted black children. Racism is a white person problem. Isn’t it?

I completely agree. And what a lot of people don’t know about me is that I have been a victim of racism. I’m Hispanic. I can tell you the thousands of times I was called a wetback. I can tell you the times when I was working in an environment with cops that were using that terminology. And I would stop them and say, "You know I’m Hispanic, right?" My mother is Mexican.

You look white. So there is a bit of a difference.

I know. But I’m Mexican. But the look on the officer’s face though is priceless. And do you think that those comments hurt any less because I look white? My mother is 4-foot-11, little Hispanic lady and she lives in Chicago and she’s 86 years old. I remember when I was growing up in grade school and we spoke what we used to call Spanglish. Because all my cousins and everybody spoke Spanish and English. I was bilingual. My aunts, my uncles, my mom, everybody said speak English when you go to school, you are going to have to speak English. And so guess what, I know very little Spanish now.

With Race Matters, Friends, you started to develop some understanding of their passion for this goal. But are you talking to each other anymore?

No. It’s devolved into a situation where there’s more yelling on one side and I don’t get yelled at well. I’ll sit and talk with you all day long if you’ll be reasonable with me. But simply calling me a racist and saying I’m mistaken just because my opinion is different … What’s the point?

So what do you think the way out of this is?

I think that the way out is to continue to work with the groups that are reasonable and that are open to discussion. We didn’t develop this problem overnight, it’s not going to be solved overnight. And some people that believe that we can solve it if the police chief said, “OK, we’re all racists” that’s not a solution either. Because I don’t believe that. So I’m not going to do that. Now, you give me good solid evidence, something other than some numbers, and I collect it and you say that proves racial profiling. It just doesn’t, it doesn’t go far enough. So we’ve been talking to an (MU) professor who is trying to help us with the numbers and do a deeper analysis.

Who’s the professor?

I don’t know if he wants his name out there. I think he’d like to do a little study on his own and maybe publish something.

Police Chief Ken Burton talks to a community member

Police Chief Ken Burton talks to a community member at an eat and greet with the Columbia Police Department and the community in April 2012, at Second Baptist Church Annex.

What about Don Love (of Empower Missouri)?

Don is one of the most level-headed guys. I can talk with him all day long. Now we don’t agree 100 percent. He believes that there’s got to be something here. These numbers, they got to prove it. He believes like me I think that you have to delve deeper into the data because he’s done it on his own. For what he has access too. So, I think we are on a good start working with the NAACP and of course Race Matters, Friends, who was a sponsor of the forums. And we’re going to do that again on Sept. 27, where we are going to have another get-together. But I think what I really want to see come out of it is people just calm down and recognize that this is a community problem, it’s not a police problem. It’s a community problem, and there is a lot of understanding that a lot of different groups can come away with if they’ll listen. I think that’s why we called it a "Listening Tour" because we didn’t want to give a lot of input at the last meeting because we were there to listen and hear what people say. And you know I’ve heard the stories. Most citizens in the U.S. only come in contact with a police officer once every five years, on average, whether it’s a traffic stop, or whatever it is. How you perceive you are treated by that police officer is how you will look at all other police officers until you have another encounter. So if it doesn’t go well, then you are going think that all police officers are like the ones you encountered.

Is that research? Or is that your impression?

This is the world according to Ken Burton. This is why I always thought it was so important to treat everyone you come in contact with like it’s your father, your mother, your brother, your sister. And the cops get so tired of hearing about it. It might be the smelliest old drunk you’ve ever encountered. But if you say, if that were my dad, how would I want the police officer to come in contact with my dad? And then treat that person accordingly. What you’re going to do is you’re going to recognize that person’s humanity first. And recognize that there’s probably been a lot of life events that got them to this stage in life. And it’s not up to us to judge, its up to us to do whatever we can to help this person. And helping, maybe actually taking them into custody for something, that may be how we’re helping. But we do it in a manner that we would want our relatives to be treated. I ask that of my police officers.

And do we happen to slip up? Yeah. I’ll tell you a good example right now. Some officers go out to a call, there is a Caucasian lady living next door to a black man. And the black man is complaining because the Caucasian lady is turning her cats loose outside, and they are walking all over his car that he just had detailed. But during the call, the white lady started using just vile expletives relating to her neighbor. Everything you could think of. The N-word is bad enough, she made a way to make it even worse. And she kept repeating it and kept repeating it, till finally the officer says to the lady, “You are acting like a racist,” and that ticked her off. Called her on being a racist. Told her to go back in the house and stop talking like a racist. So, she files a complaint on the officer. Saying that he called her racist. And I sustained the complaint (editor’s note: Burton found that the complaint was justified). Guess why? Not because he wasn’t right, it was the way he did it. He had a million different ways to tell this lady to shut up. And how I would’ve done it is, “Ma’am, there is no reason for language like that and I’m not going to listen to it. That’s disrespectful, and I’m not listening to it.” Instead he called her a racist. Which you know he could have done in a million different ways. So it’s not that he didn’t recognize that this lady was a racist. But calling her one is not what we want our police officers to do.

Is he white?

Yeah. And he has other ways of correcting it, and that’s all we’re trying to tell him. And he’s got some members of his chain of command that are up in arms because it was sustained because she was a racist. Watch the video! Listen to what she says! And my response is, I completely agree with you. What she said was racist. But we as police officers wearing this uniform cannot call people racist. We handle it with courtesy, dignity and respect. “Ma’am, I’m not going to listen to that, if you want to talk to me I’m willing to listen to you, but I’m not listening to that.”

What are the disciplinary consequences for him?

Verbal warning. It’s a training thing that just says, hey, you could’ve done better. But those are the kind of things we deal with every day. And you know, the police officers get tired of reading that they’re racist.

Police Chief Ken Burton addresses crowd

Police Chief Ken Burton addresses crowd

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said the department is reviewing its SWAT policies during a news conference in May 2010, at the Daniel Boone City Building. The news conference, which also featured then-Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid, was held to address concerns stemming from an online video that showed SWAT officers shooting two dogs while executing a search warrant earlier that year.

What about the implicit bias problem? I get where you are coming from about why you won’t call it racial profiling because you’re dissatisfied with the lack of nuance in the data. Would you acknowledge that there’s implicit bias? In white people and white officers in the police department?

I think in every single person that works here, there is implicit bias that you bring to work. Yes, we all do, we’re human beings.

How are you addressing implicit bias in the department?

Again you have to know what’s in somebody’s heart. If it’s implicit, the person doesn’t even know they’re doing it.

So what’s the harm in assuming that it’s there and addressing it?

We do. We have actually had implicit bias training. We brought them here. We brought some instructors here and they came and they talked about recognizing your own bias that you bring.

Was that a one-time thing?

We have done it only one time, but we intend to do it again. But it’s expensive because you have to do 165 people. First of all, it’s expensive to get it in the classroom and then it’s expensive to get the person to come back. We also applied for a grant through the COPS office and we got a grant. We were one of I think eight agencies that the Department of Justice came in and taught us and all of our supervisors about procedural justice. Procedural justice sounds like a big complicated term for something that is really very simple. And it’s that recognizing a person’s humanity first, and how you do that as a police officer when you approach someone on the street. The first thing is this is another human being I’m dealing with. I don’t want to bring in the fact that I had a fight with my wife before work today to the table. And recognizing that this is a person’s humanity you are dealing with teaches officers techniques to do that. But, the critiques that say that the numbers mean racial profiling are not satisfied with that training. It’s not training that they believe in.

There is so much data out there, some of it good some of it bad, that can push you in one direction or another, and it frustrates me that we take this one little piece and we make a conclusion that the entire police department is racially profiling based on that small number.

I think it’s being looked at in the context of what’s happened for decades in this country. Especially for young black men getting killed for no reason. The perception of the data is that it proves racial profiling. It’s within the context of evidence that there is racial profiling going on in America, and it often ends with people dying. And I think this is why there is so much emotion in this subject.

Then why aren’t we as worried when we look at our crime data and you look at the fact that we have had seven or eight homicides this year? Go and look at the race and the age of the victims. And when we do arrest a suspect, look at the race and age of the suspect. I think there have been eight, seven were African-American. Where is the anger about that? We have young black men out there every night shooting each other, killing each other, and we’re upset about the fact that the cops stopped me for a taillight and I happen to be black. That just pisses me off. Because those are things right there that can actually help the police.

How?

If I had parents that said: “You are not going to engage in that activity.” Here is the other piece of the struggle that I also understand. We have, in the African-American community, a lot of one-parent families. I get it. And they’re working three jobs to raise three kids. I get it. But I’ve seen successful parents and the things that they do, and I’ve seen unsuccessful parents. Societally, we have gotten to the point where if a teacher or police officer or somebody gets your kid and says, “Your kid was doing this, your kid was doing that,” they get attacked. Instead of them saying, “Why were you doing that? You need to go up there and get in the house, I’ll be there to talk to you in a minute. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” Which is what my dad would’ve done, and then my butt would’ve been in the ringer. Instead, we have parents that want to defend the activity. “My son’s not a gang member.” Have you looked at his Facebook page? Have you seen him with the gun, and the money and what looks like cocaine on his bed? Because we have. If he’s not a gang member, he sure as hell is acting like one. We have got to quit denying that our kids mess up sometimes. Kids do make mistakes, they’re kids. But we need the help of parents to say, “You know what? My son is not going be out there being one of those statistics.” Either from the side of going to prison because he shoots somebody or going to his grave because somebody’s shooting at him. It’s senseless — the things these kids are shooting at each other for are senseless. Where is the anger over that?

I think there is anger over that. It seems like a shift to focus the conversation on black-on-black crime.

But I don’t hear anybody saying anything about it I guess is my point.

You mean here in Columbia?

Anywhere.

You don’t hear people anywhere saying it’s a problem?

No. In fact, there was a video of the police chief being interviewed by the media and somebody was complaining about one of the cops. They were focusing on this police-related shooting that looked like it was a legitimate shooting. But nobody was upset about the 5-year-old girl that got killed in her house from a stray bullet. And he kind of went off on this reporter about it. I appreciate where you’re coming from when you say shift, I’m not saying shift, I’m saying share. It’s a societal problem. That’s a societal problem by itself. We all have a responsibility to make changes. We cannot do it without community support.

People want to talk about community policing and they do not know what it is. I’ve sat and talked with some members of Race Matters, Friends. Again, we are looking at it through a different lens. They want to be able to tell the police that you won’t make stops of black people after 10 p.m. for taillight violations. Well, that’s a violation of state law. We can’t give up that right because we use that as an investigative tool to help prevent crimes and to help solve crimes. But that’s what they want to be able to do. To them, that is what community policing is. Telling the police how to police. From the community policing perspective, where I come from is learning about the issues that are going on in your neighborhood and your neighborhood where you live and what’s of concern to you and what do you want me to prioritize as a police officer working in your area.

Every neighborhood’s different. You go down to Thornbrook, and you ask people, “When is the last time you saw a police officer in your neighborhood?” “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.” But if one did happen to show up down there, they’d all be outside. There are neighborhoods in our city that if they don’t see the police, it’s an indicator of a problem. Community policing is identifying what each one of those neighborhoods wants. If I go to East Campus, you know what they are going to tell me, “I want the college kids to quit shooting fireworks at 2 a.m.” There is a completely different set of problems there. On my end of the street, on my end of Broadway where I live, my wife raises hell about the traffic. That is high on her list. East Campus is not experiencing that. Community policing is taking the time to work with those citizens to find out what’s of concern to them. It’s not about changing laws or nullifying laws that you don’t like. The laws are still there.

Police Chief Ken Burton sits among others and talks during a barbecue

From left, Columbia Public Director Stacey Button, Public Works Director David Nichols, Police Chief Ken Burton, Civic Relations Officer Toni Messina and Columbia resident Michael Thornton talk during a barbecue at St. Luke United Methodist Church in June 2016. The barbecue was held before a community meeting, during which Button, Glascock, Burton and Messina spoke to the audience.

Race Matters, Friends has said we want to be able to tell police how we want to be policed. You’re saying, we want the community to tell (police) what they need. Those are very similar.

No, they’re very dissimilar. I want to know what kind of problems you’re experiencing. I’ve got a set of laws right here, Missouri Statutes, they’re all in there. The taillight is in there, the theft from people is in there, the robberies are in there. Those are legal definitions of all the crimes you can commit in Missouri. If you don’t like these, you need to go to your legislature.

You have said marijuana possession is a fairly low priority for the police department. You could say it’s a fairly low priority to be pulling over cars that have a burnt-out taillight.

It is. It is a low priority. But if you’re in a neighborhood where crime issues are occurring. Officers are taught to use that taillight as a reason to stop people for investigative reasons. You have got to go back and think about … This is absolutely crazy and it drives me nuts, but we had some prosecutors apparently that said if you have probable cause, try to get consent to search anyway. If I have probable cause I’m searching your car. Why the hell would I need to go get consent? “Well, it’s a stronger case if they tell you that you can search their car.” No, it’s not. In fact, it’s weaker. But that’s what we were teaching cops here for years. You said you had probable cause, you smelled marijuana coming out of the car. So you had the ability to search that vehicle. Why didn’t you ask for consent? “Well, the prosecutor likes when we do that.” I don’t like it when we do that. You either have probable cause or you don’t.

I think we are well on our way of getting this taken care of because if we don’t, if this doesn’t work, we are not going to do consent searches without a supervisor’s approval. That had better work.

What do you think so far?

The numbers are showing that (the consent-to-search form) is helping.

Is it being used? Because Race Matters, Friends are saying it’s not being used.

Yes.

(Race Matters, Friends President) Traci Wilson-Kleekamp* was riding with an officer. And the officer said he didn’t use them because he didn’t do consent searches. She interpreted that to mean that they were not being used. She was doing a ride-along. The officer said he doesn’t do consent searches and he doesn’t need to because he says he either has probable cause or he doesn’t. Which is my philosophy. I’d hate to take a tool like consent searches away from our officers.

We’ve come across another problem that I’m trying to solve. We have this archaic records management system that we’ve had for so long. And for decades, whoever wanted to could go in there as long as you had access to the records management system. I could go in there and put comments in there about Katherine Reed. So, if I smell marijuana in the car and I talk to you and I come to the conclusion that you might be a drug dealer even though you’re not arrested.

Katherine Reed is a possible drug dealer. Now I made that opinion based on the fact that I thought I smelled pot in your car. And you have an attitude of a possible drug dealer. Now fast forward 10 years, brand new cop goes in there, stops Katherine Reed for a traffic violation. Goes in and looks at your history. Possible drug dealer. Now he wants to search your car. So he goes up and says, “Can I search your car?” and you go, “Hell no, you’re not searching my car.” And it deteriorates and he either can search your car or he can’t, or you come down here to internal affairs and say, “Why the hell does he want to search my car?” And we go and we look and it says that you were a possible drug dealer, 10 years ago, and the information can’t be verified. But, for decades we taught officers it was OK.

City Manager Mike Matthes and Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton

City Manager Mike Matthes, left, and Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton enter a conference room on March 6, 2012, at the Daniel Boone City Building.

What is the way forward for this because it does feel like community policing is something that a lot of people in Columbia like the sound of, partly because of the success of the unit that is already out there.

Not just the unit that’s already out there but the downtown unit … It’s working, it works, and when we do it, it works. People get to know the community, and the community gets to know the officers, and the officers learn what it is people are concerned about in their neighborhood.

But you have a very active local group saying, we’re not going to support more money for more cops for community policing…

Until we do community policing, and the problem is we can’t do it until we get more cops because we don’t have enough. There’s an ideal formula that I’ve touted since I got here — that a patrol officer should be able to use one-third of their time on call, one-third of time to the administrative duties related to that call and one-third discretionary time.

That would be the time you spend walking around and talking to people.

So, when you have to answer the calls, you have to do the administrative duties related to those calls, you have to do the paper work. So what suffers when you don’t have enough cops, the discretionary time. So, it probably does not surprise you that the community outreach unit is not very popular in the department. Not because the officers do not want to do community policing. They want to do the same thing those cops are doing.

They’re a little jealous?

Yes. They have time and I don’t. Not only that, but it’s six more officers that are out there not answering calls than there were before, and now I’m having to pick up their slack.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton, Sergeant Michael Hestir and Fire Captain Brian Tilman cool off in front of four solar-powered fans

From left, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton, Sergeant Michael Hestir and Fire Captain Brian Tilman cool off in front of four solar-powered fans provided by Columbia Water and Light during a barbecue at St. Luke United Methodist Church in June 2016.

How many officers are you down now?

I think it was 11 or 12 the other day. We just graduated five from the academy and we’ve got seven in the academy and I think there are 11 more vacancies.

Cops per thousand citizens isn’t something you just pull out of the sky. If you want your police officers to be able to engage in those kinds of activities that the community loves, you have to give them the time to do it, and that’s why the (community outreach unit) is so popular. Help these citizens in these communities, have their cell phone number! They can call it day or night. And they know when the officer is working and the other officer is working and when they’re off and all that stuff and I’m not going to bother them on their day off with this kind of stuff. Citizens are out there saying that.

Do you know if crime has gone down in that area?

Yes, it has.

I’m still hearing an impasse (in the discussions over racial profiling and community policing). I really think you are a little stuck.

Please don’t characterize it as an impasse. I don’t see it as an impasse, please go back and look at it through us looking at it from different lenses. It’s not necessarily an impasse. I understand a lot more about what Race Matters, Friends say than they give me credit for. And I have made a concerted effort from other people’s perspective why they feel the way they do. And that was my comment to you a minute ago. I get it. You’re stopped four times for that taillight, that can’t be it. It has to be because I am African-American. So I get it. And the cop … if it’s the same cop, we have an issue. But if it's four different cops, how can you blame four different cops? You’re having to put together this conspiracy that they are all working to stop you because you’re African-American. And that to me is counter intuitive. You have four different officers seeing the same violation, that means that there’s a violation. Now, we can debate this kind of stuff. What I told the guys on the consent searches, I said, we’re going to ask people and we are going to make sure they understand. … I said I want a form that someone could sign that lets people know they have the right to say no for consent searches, and it’s going to be simple. I don’t want people walking away scratching their heads saying what in the world is on that form. So, it needs to be simple so people can understand.

And you remember, we got beat up for the “10 rules for dealing with the police” (information card) when they were saying you can’t search my car. So, I think I’ve done what a lot of police chiefs wouldn’t have done and pissed people off internally over the stance I’ve taken on things. But those are people’s rights. You have the right to say no, you can’t search my car. That’s your right. And, by gosh, you ought to understand, you ought to know it, you ought to use it. And if the officer has probable cause, then that is where the chips fall. But if they don’t, no you’re not getting in my car. It’s their right. … And the cops think it’s putting them at an unfair advantage if (citizens) understand their rights. Well of course it is, because you’re a cop. Two different lenses, two different lenses. What I’m trying to do, if you take nothing away from this rambling on, I’m trying to put the two lenses together and look through both of them and see where the differences are and what we can do to make things better.

You have spoken on how you think the new consent search policy is going to change the racial profiling disparity.

I’m hoping that it will.

Can you articulate why?

Because if you are stopping somebody for a minor traffic violation and that’s all you have, regardless of the race of the person in the car, it will either do one of two things: We should be able to pick up on if you do ask for consent search, why are you doing it? And if you’re only doing it with African-American drivers, why aren’t you doing it for the white drivers? So that’s where I think it will ferret itself out. But cops are not stupid. Contrary to popular belief, as a group they are a pretty smart group.

Think about it: If you’re a police officer and there is a possibility that you are racially profiling and maybe you think, “Maybe I am.” Are you going to stop more African-American drivers, or are you going to stop more white drivers? What we are trying to get them to do (is think) about why am I stopping this person?

So you’re saying it could be a consciousness-raising tool?

Absolutely, it could.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton addresses questions at a news conference

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton addresses questions at a news conference on March 6, 2012, at the Daniel Boone City Building.

Race Matters, Friends has been expressing impatience, at this point. You can appreciate why people would feel impatient. Can you get beyond this at this point? I hear the frustration and impatience. Do you get that?

I do, and prior to Race Matters, Friends’ existence, we went through the same thing with the NAACP. Mary and I would meet every year. And she would say, these numbers look like racial profiling. And I would tell her the same things. Mary, we are looking at it, I don’t see it and here’s why I don’t see it. These numbers do not go far enough. And we’d go a month or so and you guys would talk about it in the media and then stop talking about it, and we’d wait until next year when the next report came out, and we would go through the same cycle again. I’m tired of it, too. I’m tired of it, too.

You would like a better understanding of it?

I would.

So what about this call for you to quit? Race Matters, Friends has been saying you can’t acknowledge what is obvious to other people, which is that the department is racially profiling.

I am not going anywhere. Number one, I work for the city manager. As long as he wants me here, I’ll be here. But, I really don’t subscribe to those kind of responses. I could say the same thing. I disagree with you so you should quit, how about that? And that is not a reason to call for somebody to quit. It actually makes me lose patience and lose respect for people when they resort to those sorts of tactics. If I were the kind of guy that just told you to go to hell, okay, I get it. But, I’ve never been that way and don’t intend to be that way. And I’m going retire when I’m 65, so I have about 30 months left.

Noah McGee contributed to this report.

  • I'm the public safety and health editor at the Missourian and a professor in the School of Journalism. I'm experienced in directing investigative projects. Call me at (573) 882-1792 with story tips, ideas or complaints.

  • Fall 2017 Health and Safety reporter. I am a junior studying magazine writing.

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