COLUMBIA — When Columbia police officers James Meyer, 28, and Jamie Dowler, 27, started patrolling the Douglass Park area on foot, people were quick to cross the street to avoid them. Some people shouted at them to go away. Others wouldn’t talk to them at all.
But that was three months ago. When Dowler and Meyer walk down the street these days, residents wave and call out their names just to ask them how they are and shake their hands. Groups of neighborhood kids run up to them, grab their legs and wrestle with them.
“I think, No. 1, is that they have fostered many good relationships in the area,” said Lt. Chris Kelley, who has overseen the Douglass Park area for the past year. “And, No. 2, from what we are hearing from their stakeholders, they are seeing a better atmosphere of the park. I think at this point we are seeing positive change.”
Meyer and Dowler were assigned to the proactive unit of the Columbia Police Department in May in response to violent crimes in Beat 20, a part of central Columbia loosely defined as the area inside Business Loop 70, College Avenue, Ash Street and West Boulevard. Eleven officers patrol Beat 20; nine answer service calls.
Dowler and Meyer's main goals are ambitious: to open up a dialogue with the community and deter violent crimes.
“If we can effectively problem-solve motives behind the crime, it will either reduce itself or stop altogether,” Meyer said.
Finding the people for the job
When 17-year-old DeAudre Orlando Johnson was shot March 12, Dowler was one of the first at the scene. Minutes later, he hopped into the ambulance with Johnson as he was rushed to University Hospital.
Dowler talked to the teenager and told him to hold on as he slipped out of consciousness.
“You’re a 17-year old kid, and you’re dying in front of me,” Dowler said. “Nobody wants to go through that. This kid didn’t have to die.”
Dowler said the day was a wake-up call for the community. Less than an hour before Johnson was fatally wounded near Trinity and Switzler streets, a fight had broken out a few blocks away at North Providence Road and Rogers Street. The disturbance involved almost 100 people.
A few weeks later, on April 17, 17-year-old Bryan Rankin was shot and killed at West Sugar Tree Lane, in Beat 80.
“We knew we needed to respond,” Kelley said.
The Police Department decided to look for two police officers with a good work ethic and solid communication and people skills to patrol Beat 20 and focus on fostering relationships with the community, building trust and problem-solving neighborhood concerns, such as youth violence. Eight officers applied for the job, and Meyer and Dowler were chosen.
Both had previous experience in the area.
Meyer, who was Dowler’s field training officer, joined the force in 2009 and has worked as a patrol officer in the downtown area, including Beat 20 and Beat 40. In January, Dowler started his first year on the job as a patrol officer in Beat 20.
The two felt connected to the area and wanted a job that required them to be motivated each day.
“We both are kind of personally committed to it now,” Meyer said.
For park, a bad reputation
Though robberies and drug use have been a problem in the area, Meyer thinks people have exaggerated Douglass Park’s bad reputation. The park is centrally located in Columbia, with high-crime areas on all four sides.
Kelley thinks part of the problem is that criminals come to Columbia — a stopping point halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis — to stir up trouble and leave their mess behind.
“The vast majority of the people down here are good people,” Kelley said. “But they get this stigma that it's a bad area, but that’s not true because there are so many wonderful people that live down here.”
Most people who know him would agree that Curtis "Boogieman" Soul is one of those people. A Columbia resident of 17 years and a disc jockey for 40 years, Soul has played music free at the Douglass Park pavilion every Friday and Saturday evening for the past two years. In April, the Parks and Recreation Department started paying him to be a DJ at the park on Saturdays.
Although he sometimes sees “fussing,” Soul said he has yet to see real threats of violence.
“I get more love in that park than I do going to church,” Soul said.
Originally from St. Louis, Soul was surprised to learn of the reputation of such a small city park.
“I used to go over and watch to see the danger,” Soul said. “I would be on guard. When the pistols going to start? When the gangs going to come out and mug you? When the women’s purses going to be snatched?”
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood blames part of that undeserved reputation on the media, which too often use the park as a symbol of crime.
“In trying to report the news or describe what’s happening, it’s very easy to say this incident occurred near Douglass Park,” Hood said. “That’s probably accurate, but the readers who are responding to the event simply hear Douglass Park, and they begin to associate all these issues as happening in the park.”
Hood said people easily forget the good things happening there, including the Douglass Family Aquatic Center and the Douglass Park Spraygrounds. This summer, park activities included the Douglass Bulldogs Baseball League, Moonlight Hoops, Lunch in the Park and the annual Juneteenth Days.
“It’s where the people come together to socialize,” Hood said. “It is an extremely valuable asset to that neighborhood.”
Soul said regular users of the park are “kin” and have known each other for years. Dowler, too, has seen this during his patrols.
“People are born and raised in that area, and they have a sense of it being home,” Dowler said. “They don’t want to worry about violent things happening.”
Meyer thinks the community is more close-knit than other communities in Columbia and tends to handle issues internally before going to the police. Although he sees that kind of neighborhood accountability as positive, Beat 20 residents often do not report crimes for fear of being labeled a “snitch” by the community and ostracized.
“They’ve got to trust us,” Meyer said. “And eventually they are going to get to the point that they are so sick of what’s going on that they are not going to worry about calling us and people calling them a snitch.”
Meyer and Dowler's first day on the job was tense. In uniform, there was no hiding who they were. As they patrolled the area and introduced themselves to passersby, the pair picked up on uneasiness. People didn't know what to say, and they didn't want much to do with them.
Despite the tension, the two set out to spend their entire 10-hour shift talking with people. They talked about the weather and sometimes the news — anything to make the residents feel comfortable around them.
“I wasn’t sure how much they would open up to us,” Dowler said. “They thought that we were down there with an iron fist to nitpick.”
Before they took their first physical steps, Meyer and Dowler tried to build relationships with the community during their uncommitted time. But like most patrol officers, they were too busy to make much headway.
Now, on the proactive unit, they're no longer tied to radio calls and can spend their time getting to know the community.
The longer the pair has patrolled Beat 20, the more receptive the community has become. Dowler said that after a few weeks the residents realized that the police were not out to get them, but to protect them and work with them.
After watching their interactions with the community, Soul came up with the moniker "Starsky and Hutch" for Dowler and Meyer. He used to watch the TV show growing up and thought the two officers fit the nickname. They were at the right age and had the right attitude. Soon the entire neighborhood had picked up on it.
“It stuck,” Dowler said. “Everyone has a street name, and ours can be Starsky and Hutch. I think it’s pretty cool.”
Knowing people’s street names and other basic facts about them is important to “connecting the dots” of the neighborhood story, Meyer said.
Soul often sees area residents try to get the two to dance when he plays his music at the pavilion. When the officers take a break from walking, people gather around them to chat. If Dowler and Meyer pull up in their car, residents will get up and hang in their car window to have a conversation.
Meanwhile, Meyer said other officers have remarked that calls have dropped dramatically in Beat 20. Until they've completed one full year on Beat 20, the empirical evidence won't confirm that observation, Kelley said.
Still, the community's response is one measure of Dowler and Meyer's success.
“It also comes back to our community,” Kelley said. “If their perception is that things are better, that’s also an accurate measurement too.”
On June 2, Douglass Park was teeming with people. Groups of police and firefighters were scattered in the crowd of area residents, as children ran and screamed around the park.
About 350 people were gathered. But on that day, there was no big fight, no violence. It was a day for baseball.
Twice this summer, Meyer and Dowler helped organize a community baseball game between the Police Department and the Columbia Fire Department, something the departments had never done before.
Douglass Bulldogs Baseball League coordinator Sam Brady, with the help of the Park and Recreation Department, paid for the first game out of pocket. After a successful first event, Meyer and Dowler were ready to host another one. This time, neither the Parks and Recreation Department nor Brady could foot the bill. So Meyer and Dowler did.
People of all ages filled each ends of the park, eating hot dogs, hamburgers, soda and pizza as they watched the games and danced to music in the pavilion.
"We were seeing people we’ve never seen before at the park," Brady said.
Throughout the summer, Brady built a friendship with Dowler and Meyer. The two officers helped Brady keep the baseball league a safe environment for kids by patrolling the park during games.
More than 130 children, ranging from ages 5 to 10, signed up for the league, with games each day except Sunday.
No threatening incidents occurred during the season and Brady attributes much of this to the work of Dowler and Meyer. At the end of the season, he awarded them the same medals each child received for participating in the league.
“It was 'thank you' on behalf of the children,” Brady said.
Brady, who grew up in the projects of St. Louis, said he was raised to never trust the police. He was shocked to see his perception change as Dowler and Meyer shared their personal lives and stories with him.
“We would see each other a few 300, 400 feet away. We would go and give each other a hug,” Brady said. “Every day, they hugged me, and I hugged them back.”
Brady said his perception was not the only one that changed. After doing a thorough background check, Brady allowed a former drug dealer and gang member, to become a baseball coach. The man turned out to be one of the best coaches in the league.
He said that one day, Dowler and Meyer pulled the man over for a speeding violation. After recognizing him as a coach, they let him off with a warning.
“That changed him, and he wanted to do better in this life,” Brady said.
Kelley said the department thinks the park ultimately needs to be a neighborhood initiative. For now, after an evaluation of Dowler and Meyers’ work on the proactive unit in Beat 20, the department decided at the end of July to continue the initiative until further notice.
But Meyer would like to see the neighborhood become so cohesive that residents begin to solve their own problems, through their own sense of pride in Douglass Park.
"The community itself can do that," he said. "Some of them don't know they can do that. That's our ultimate goal — to get people accountable for their own community, their own neighborhood."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.