In the month since he was selected as interim Columbia Police Chief, Geoff Jones has been a lot of places and taken a lot of meetings.
Jones, 43, who used to run the department’s community outreach unit, has made it very clear since he was appointed to the position after the resignation of Police Chief Ken Burton that he would not use his time as interim chief to maintain the status quo. Although he says he’s not sure if he’ll apply for the permanent position — that decision will involve his family and depend on how he feels in the job and how people feel about him — he believed some changes had to be made right away.
Like communication, which needed improvement. And those gold buttons on command staff uniforms — they needed to go away. And the rule about who could participate in staff meetings. “Anyone from the custodian to the deputy chiefs,” is his new policy.
In a recent interview with the Missourian, Jones talked about the direction he sees policing taking in Columbia and spoke proudly of his commitment to transparency and equality within the department. He also reflected on his years of service with the department, how those experiences have shaped his philosophy of policing and his plans to address violence, particularly budding gang violence, within the community.
Editor’s note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.
Missourian: Have you been busy dealing with issues left over from Ken Burton’s administration?
Jones: I don’t want to focus on the past. There has been a lot of opportunity for improvement. There have been things that I have wanted to do that I felt like would further the community policing mission, which is a policing mission even though we keep putting a label on it. I have been taking steps to get us to the point where officers can make decisions and engage people, be accountable for their areas, feel empowered to make decisions that I don’t know if they would have felt prior to me coming in here.
Missourian: The conversation with Chief Burton around community policing was contentious. There was so much disagreement about what community policing is and isn’t. Where do you think the confusion comes from?
Jones: A lot of it has been communication. I don’t know if you know my background here but I started off here as a police cadet. We had a crime prevention unit. The people who mentored me, who showed me what police work was, they were in a crime prevention unit. They did community outreach, really in the purest form, in the early ‘90s.
I had that experience before going to college, so even the things I drew from the classes I took and criminal justice classes, you know everyone looks at it through their filter, whether it’s in class or training or at work or in their relationships with people. My college experience, I filtered everything and all that information that came in about policing through the eyes of someone who had experience in a crime prevention unit, so I was really focused on that part of it, even as a kid.
I think Chief Burton did know what community policing was. I don’t know that the communication was great, and I don’t know that the internal communication was great. I think there was a lack of support because there was a lack of understanding from a lot of people. Had that been better communicated, I think there would have been more support for it.
Missourian: How true is it that community policing isn’t taken very seriously within the department? That people think it’s like, cooking at barbecues and playing XBOX with kids?
Jones: I’ll tell you how that got started: With the things that were happening nationally, the things happening in St. Louis, tensions — especially racial tensions — were really high with the police ... I asked if we could start a community outreach unit and grow what we had in Douglass Park into something that was more meaningful.
As a police officer, I came up in that area, and Douglass Park was a place that was known, especially back in the day, for open-air drug sales. There were shootings there. It was a dangerous place, and there were several things that we could have done, but for whatever reason we chose to put two white police officers in a predominately black park. A lot of people were offended by that. Now, people had relationships with the cops who were there, they understood that the cops were placed there. They had good relationships with the people in the park and the surrounding community. But I don’t know if the decision was the right decision at the time.
And Mike Hester ... was a patrol sergeant, he had his own squad of people, and I said, ”I’m gonna put these guys under you, and I’m gonna try to get it to where they go out into the central part of the city, not just the park, but to build some relationships, get to know people, solve some problems, not just the park.”
I at one point was ordered to keep these two cops in the park for eight hours a day, not to leave the park. Then it was, ”Well, you can leave, but we have cameras in the park and they have to monitor the cameras,” and I just did not see a whole lot of value in that. I thought it was likely hurting other relationships.
Missourian: It sounds like it was focused on surveillance.
Jones: Well, I don’t know if it was surveillance or just being present. Because when officers are present it’s not likely that someone is going to shoot someone else. And I understood that.
But I felt like there was a bigger issue and if we could expand into the central part of the city that those relationships would form and we would have better information flowing both ways, and that we could solve some problems. And we had some success there. I met some resistance at first, and then that extended into the central part of the city as you know, and then eventually we went into these three strategic neighborhoods. And we had some success. And we learned some things also, but it was all based on relationships. It wasn’t trying to occupy a neighborhood or doing saturations.
But back to what you asked about the barbecue stuff ... I had ordered each team of officers that was in those neighborhoods, three at the time — now we have four neighborhoods — to hold three events. I didn’t care if they were barbecues or town hall meetings, but it was an effort to jumpstart this relationship between the people who lived there and the police, so that we could meet each other when we weren’t taking a police report and they weren’t a victim of something, we weren’t arresting someone, they weren’t a suspect, we weren’t pulling them over. This was just so that we could meet in a neutral place. And we had success in that, so then other places inside the city government and private businesses saw some success in that.
So then we became tasked with having all of these events. So the balance, very quickly, was out of whack, and we weren’t taking the police action that we needed, because people in those neighborhoods expected us to take police action ... So now I have the opportunity to strike a balance.
Missourian: Former Chief Burton stated in front of the Citizen Police Review Board that ”Cops want to chase, they want action, and that’s not what community policing is. Therefore it’s not popular among officers.” How much truth is there to that?
Jones: There’s some truth to it. And I had mentioned this before. In police work you have to have people who are willing to run into situations that other people are running away from, so it takes a special kind of person. I ran the training and recruiting unit for years, and interviewed all the cops that came in, and hired a lot of cops. And every single one of them gave the answer, ”I’m here to help my community, I want to help, I want to make things better.” It wasn’t, ”I wanna chase people, tackle people, get in car pursuits.” That’s not what they said, otherwise we wouldn’t have hired them.
Missourian: Maybe secretly that’s what they wanted, but they didn’t say it in the interview.
Jones: But it’s exciting. And it is. But I liken it to going fishing. You know, we see people victimize other people, and for us, we feel some sense of responsibility there. So if we go after those people who victimize other people and we chase them, it’s just like catching a big fish. You may have a little struggle or a fight, and the adrenaline pumps, and it’s exciting, but at the end it’s about catching the big fish. And if we got away from officers who are willing to take on that responsibility and chase people, and have some satisfaction in that, we would be pretty ineffective in catching people who are dangerous, who run from us and fight. But that’s not what they go out hoping to do every day. If you listen to a police officer on the radio during pursuit, they are stressed to the max. But they cope with that, and they take some enjoyment in catching people.
Missourian: What is your definition of community policing?
Jones: Community policing is being transparent: Building trust, building relationships so that you can make the community safer and make the community feel safer. It is not rocket science ... We have made this a political issue for so many people, and it’s really about forming relationships, building trust and solving crime issues so that people feel safer. Now there’s a lot that goes into that: Training and policy and all of those things.
I think the other side that does make it community policing is that you involve the community in at least their understanding of what your practices are. It’s part of that transparency. Every person that came to that policy meeting last night knew what the policy was, why I made the decision I made. Some of them had questions, were critical of some of the decisions I made, but we came to an understanding so they knew why I was doing what I was doing. I think you have to have that on community policing.
Missourian: It’s suspected that morale got really low in the police department ... What are you trying to do about morale?
Jones: So I’m meeting with every employee and hearing them out. There’s a list over there, it’s probably 40 of them that I’ve talked to, maybe 50. Morale is really good right now.
Missourian: Is it a honeymoon period?
Jones: I don’t think so. I’ve always had a good relationship with the people who work for me and with me. Of course there are those people that will have a personality conflict. But for the most part, everybody’s feeling like I support them. They see me down there, I wear a uniform, I still wear a vest, I do that very purposefully ... I’m not going to ask them to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. And they know that. They know that I see the issues with some of the policies that we’ve had. I support them in going and catching people who victimize other people. I think a lot of it has to do with showing them the respect they deserve internally. I’m having them come to command staff meetings, so what used to be the chief and the deputy chief and assistant chiefs is now anybody in the building, from the custodian to the deputy chief who wants to come to the meeting. I think our last command staff meeting had over 20 people in it. I got rid of gold buttons.
Missourian: What are gold buttons?
Jones: So if you look at old pictures, all of the command staff had to wear gold buttons on their shirts, to separate them from everybody else. When I was asked why I got rid of gold buttons, I said some people were focused on them and it was blinding them. So I took them away.
I don’t think it’s a honeymoon phase. I stand on my decisions, I’ll make mistakes. I’ve had cops come in here and question decisions, and sometimes they’ll sway me the other direction because they’re right. I don’t have all the answers. But the relationship is just different.
Missourian: It sounds as if you’ve made some decisions pretty fast. What were they? What did you do right away because to you it was so obvious that it needed to be done?
Jones: (Referring to a list on his iPad) We’ve had Power DMS (data management system) for a while, but there are some benefits to using that ... Like our policy, I’ll give you an example: We’re going through (CALEA) accreditation, and that’s like drinking from a fire hose. They would send out the policy on Power DMS, which got it blasted to everybody, they say ”review it and sign off on it by this date.” So what everybody was doing was just signing off on it. So if you go ask somebody a specific question about the policy, they wouldn’t know.
So we’re moving toward doing some tests, there are also tests you can do in Power DMS, over the subject matter that you send, so that we can show that they (officers) have read it and they understand it. And we’re going to have those trainings and shift meetings when cops come to work. They’ll get the laptops out of their cars and pull up the policy, go through it, take the test, sign off on it, so that I know they know the policy. Power DMS will track that for us. I don’t see the point in revising policy if nobody reads them.
Missourian: December 2018 was a bad end to the year, and January was bad for homicide. You don’t have to be a genius to notice who’s shooting and who’s getting killed ... The conversation around gangs in Columbia has been going on for a long time.
Jones: I worked the first gang case at the federal level here, the Cutthroat case.
Missourian: Some people said there were never any Cutthroats, that the Cutthroats didn’t exist, that they were made up by the police.
Jones: Except for all of the recordings where they were talking about murdering people and doing shootings.
Missourian: How are you addressing this problem? Is there anything that you are hoping to do to bring down the homicide number?
Jones: Columbia is inside of Boone County, Boone County is inside of the state. We work with the FBI, the highway patrol. In the past, we’ve done saturations. What a saturation means, is, say in the northeast part of town we have shootings, we’re gonna go up there and find every legal reason to stop somebody and poke around and see what we can find. And it’s a legitimate police practice. It’s legal.
But the other side to that is that we stop and contact a lot of people, who are mostly in minority neighborhoods, for the purpose of trying to interrupt a few people. And that has caused issues in other areas that we have talked about and you report on. So what I have asked is that we focus on the people who are doing the shootings. We know, generally, who they are or at least what groups they run in. And I’ve asked that we make sure that we have intelligence, that we go into those operations with an intelligence officer who’s in the building, and all these people who have pre-intelligence — the stuff that we know — are on the street focusing on those people. And then while they’re doing that, as they gather more intelligence, and some of it hasn’t been corroborated or it doesn’t fit yet, but they give that to an intelligence officer, who takes the intelligence, researches it, finds connections, then puts the information out. So intelligence in, information out, then the officers are out there stopping who they need to stop.
And if you look at what we did last week, with the highway patrol, the FBI, the sheriff’s department, we even witnessed a shooting because we’re in the right place in the right time. And that is how we’re going to interrupt people shooting at each other.
The other thing that I’ve done is, the previous administration was worried about overtime, as am I, but when we would have a homicide and the detectives only did part of that ... We would bring in a few detectives and a sergeant sometimes, and they would track down the leads they had to, then the rest of it would wait until the next day, during normal business hours. That is not how you work a homicide. They’re usually drug-related, or oftentimes are. Maybe not directly but indirectly. So our narcotics unit should be involved, our street crimes unit, who gets a lot of intelligence and really is out doing a lot of community policing-type things, they have a lot of connections in the community, our COU officers, they should all be called in here to solve a homicide when it happens.
So I’ve given that order. People have to feel safe here. And we have to find those people and arrest them. But we have to do it in a responsible way. And it might be a little more work, but that’s what we’re going to do.
Missourian: I think you mean that sometimes it’s fairly obvious that these are retaliatory shootings...
Missourian: So are you at the point where you’re able to anticipate that what might happen is that this group may be retaliating in the next 24 hours or 48 hours against another group?
Jones: It’s not that specific. We’ve had shootings based on someone saying something derogatory about someone else’s girlfriend, but it’s between two groups. That’s actually how the Cutthroat stuff started, when those kids were in junior high school, that’s how that started. And what people don’t know about the Cutthroat case, because they focus on ‘I went out and arrested all these kids and sent them to federal prison when they were teenagers and young adults,’ is I took every one of those kids and had both sides in the police department. We searched them when they came in the door to make sure they didn’t bring guns, and we did a mediation here when they were in junior high school. And I told them, with their parents in the room, ‘We have to stop this or the federal government will get involved because this is gang activity, you’re shooting in public places, and you’re going to go to federal prison.’
A couple years later when it didn’t stop, the FBI came in and said, ‘Who knows the most about these people?’ and it was me. So then I was put in a position where I had to investigate them for the things they were doing, legitimately, and they went to federal prison. It’s not the outcome I wanted. But you know, it gets reported one way because people who are out talking are giving one side of the story.
Missourian: We’d like to ask you about Internal Affairs and Lt. (Brian) Tate... (placed on leave for his use of social media, which violated department policy).
Jones: I won’t answer any questions about Lieutenant Tate or (Internal Affairs).
Missourian: Not even what you’re doing with the unit?
Jones: I haven’t done anything with it yet. Other than, we’re doing a review of that audit, of the cases (Tate) touched.
Missourian: Back in January, when there was still some debate about who would be interim police chief, Sheriff Dwayne Carey expressed some interest in not having a chief of police and simply merging the Columbia police department with (his). Has that impacted the relationship between Columbia police and the Boone County Sheriff’s department?
Jones: No, I have a good relationship with the sheriff.
Missourian: Have you talked about it?
Jones: Not really, the chances of that happening are almost nil. Just the way our government is set up it won’t happen.
Missourian: Recruiting, getting more cops... That must be fairly top of the line for you. Any ideas?
Jones: We did away with our cadet program, we did away with our citizens’ policing program. My intention is to bring both of those back. I don’t know what the time frame for that will be.
Missourian: How long ago were those eliminated?
Jones: The cadet program was eliminated a couple years ago. I can’t give you an exact number. And that’s how I was recruited. There’s a lot of studies that show that youth programs are important. But the other thing I’ve done is I’ve asked the NAACP, I’ve had discussions with Race Matters, Friends. I’ve talked about needing to recruit a more diverse group of people, and I asked for help with that. I don’t think that is simply a police department problem, I think it is a community problem.
Missourian: How so? How is that a community problem?
Jones: I think people get better police service when they have people who have similar lived experiences making decisions on how they police neighborhoods. And we have really good police officers. And we have a diverse group of police officers, but there’s not the volume of officers that I think are needed to match what we have in our community.
Missourian: Do you happen to know what the percentage is within the department of police officers who are people of color?
Jones: I don’t. I don’t know what the percentage is. It’s low.
Missourian: It seems as if it’s hard to attract people to police work right now, and this isn’t the only department that’s having a problem.
Jones: No, everybody’s having a problem. Part of the difficulty is we’re constantly being scrutinized. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not going to run from anything or hide anything from you. I’ll tell you. The people who work here, everyone who has worked here before and everyone who will work here after I’m long gone will all be human, and they’re going to make mistakes. Everything that we do is recorded, most of it becomes public record. Whether we own up to our mistakes or we run from them, as police in general, regardless of where it occurs, it always comes back to be our issue locally.
And I don’t know how to combat that without making relationships in the community. And it’s a cyclical problem, because if you don’t have the relationships in the community, you’re not going to recruit people who already have a mistrust of the police, and then you don’t have that group of people, so we can’t build those relationships in the same way, and it just feeds on itself. So I think it becomes a community problem in that we don’t have the representation that we all want, and we are only a small part of that recruiting effort. If we have people in the community that have access and ideas, then we need that help.
Missourian: Chief Burton had a hard time saying, ‘We have a racial profiling problem in traffic stops.’ Do you have a problem saying that?
Jones: I don’t have a problem saying there’s a disparity. Here’s the problem: So there’s all these different data sets, and there is a disparity. I don’t know to what level the disparity is based on bias or race, but you can’t rule it out.
I agree that the data and how it’s interpreted has been entirely insufficient in trying to resolve those questions. But I think it’s asinine not to make some effort to collect the right data and come, as a community, to some conclusions that you can take some action on. Whether that’s the police or some community program or poverty or whatever it is, because we’ve talked about those being drivers of crime, too, whatever those issues are, figuring out how to mitigate them. But I know that bias has to play at least some part, I just don’t know to what degree.
Missourian: Unconscious bias is a big problem in a lot of places.
Jones: Well, we all have it, and we don’t have to call each other racists because we’re biased. We just have to identify what it is so that we can mitigate it. And once we get there, things are going to be a lot better. But we have to get there.
Missourian: Is there still training (at CPD) on unconscious bias? Do you think once a year is enough?
Jones: I don’t think that formal training is the only form of training. I believe we help to train ourselves through meaningful conversations... I’m a relationship kind of guy. We have a lot of people who go out into the community and have hard conversations privately with people, including me. I think that’s training in itself, and part of what I think will improve this is getting cops out of their cars and talking to people when we’re not doing law enforcement, when we’re doing policing, so that we can train ourselves both ways. Let people ask questions, answer the questions honestly.
Missourian: Especially if you have an opportunity to kind of unpack it ... like talk about the experience later and what surprised you about it.
Jones: It’s funny to me. I don’t know what it’s like to be black or Latino, but I do know what it’s like to look different and be treated differently because of how I look. And the example I give is, I went to Texas Roadhouse to meet my family for dinner. So my wife and my two kids are there, and I walk into Texas Roadhouse. Pretty diverse group of people, Hispanic, black, white, you name it, they’re represented in Texas Roadhouse if you ever eat there.
So I walk in, and dozens of people turn in their chairs and stop talking to their families to watch me walk to the table. Because I’m wearing a uniform. They stop talking when I walk into a room, or they want to tell me about some experience. It’s not because of who I am, it’s because of how they see me. And I recognize that part. And it can be really good in some ways and it can be really difficult in some ways.
But I don’t have that lived experience of wondering how the police are going to perceive me because I’m a certain color. I don’t know what that’s like. But when we have conversations about it I get some perspective at least. And it is a way to unpack those things.
Missourian reporter Brennan John contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.