The Race Matters, Friends potluck hosting Sgt. Robert Fox of the Columbia Police Department had a lot on the menu: fried chicken, pasta, mac and cheese.
What it didn’t have on the menu?
Answers the group hoped for.
Race Matters, Friends hosted Fox, who was appointed by City Manager Mike Matthes to lead the Columbia’s community policing initiative. The Columbia City Council passed a resolution in February directing Matthes to design the initiative.
Fox will be responsible for developing a plan to have police officers interact more with residents and build relationships with the community. He will work with the CPD, Columbia residents and other groups in the community.
About 30 people attended the meeting held at the Youth Empowerment Zone. Members of Race Matters, Friends said they expected a dialogue with Fox about community policing with a timeline, a budget and an answer to the big question: How is the department planning to apply the philosophy of CPD’s Community Outreach Unit to the entire department?
Members of the group and attendees wanted to know how Fox was planning to implement a “guardianship philosophy,” which focuses on protecting citizens and increasing community involvement. Instead, Wednesday’s discussion became a debate over what community policing is and whether the department needs more resources before the philosophy can be put into practice.
Fox said officers do not have time to go into the community because of their workload.
“They don’t feel like they’re getting work done,” Fox said. “That’s not a rewarding occupation.”
Fox said there needs to be more officers and resources.
Race Matters, Friends said there needs to be discussion of principle and culture change first and that the approach is crucial for the police as well as the community. The only way to get the community on board is to first change the overall approach to gain trust, President of Race Matters, Friends Traci Wilson-Kleekamp said. Then only will the community approve funding for more officers and resources, she said.
“The whole way it is designed is so the burden is not on the police department,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.
Wilson-Kleekamp said the clock again has been set back in discussions that have been ongoing for months.
“We were going to ask, ‘How is it going? How are the steps in the resolution coming?’” Race Matters, Friends member Peggy Placier said. “But we have gotten stuck on what is the ‘that’ — what is community oriented policing.”
Fox said he was there to get Race Matters, Friends’ perspective on community policing. He also said he did not have much power to implement change.
“My job is the report,” Fox said. “That goes to council which may or may not form the basis of a ballot, which may or may not go for a vote, which may or may not get passed.”
Wilson-Kleekamp said she didn’t blame Fox but rather those in power — the city manager and the council.
“They’ve designed a process that doesn’t deputize someone to do transformative work,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.
When asked about what he knew about community policing models and examples, Fox pointed to the importance of school resource officers and an example of a citizen outreach group in Washington that worked effectively with their police department.
When asked how that community model could apply to Columbia, Fox was not able to provide a specific answer, saying only that he would work to get community input.
Wilson-Kleekamp and other members of Race Matters, Friends said the reports and data are already out there that provide an outline of exactly what the community wants. She pointed to the resolution, input provided by the Citizens Police Review Board, Missourian articles covering effective techniques in other states and other information.
What they needed was specific answers about his philosophy and understanding of how it was going to be implemented, Wilson-Kleekamp said.
Members asked Fox several times why the community outreach unit’s principles, which they praised, are not being used as a model. Fox said the community outreach unit is small compared to the entire department and it’s not up to him to change the department’s philosophy.
Leaders of the Community Outreach Unit participated in the discussion, including Lt. Geoff Jones, Sgt. Mike Hestir and Officer Tony Parker. Jones was supportive of Fox, saying there is a hierarchy that prevents Fox from implementation and direct involvement.
Fox said in his role as a patrol supervisor he recognizes the value of community interaction.
“I don’t think we are that far away the way (the community outreach unit) is working,” Fox said.
Wilson-Kleekamp said the best people to lead the initiative would have been members of the Community Outreach Unit.