Melinda Henneberger

Racial profiling, tweeted slurs. Why can’t Columbia shake its ugly past?

The longtime police chief here, Ken Burton, was suspended and then forced out after a whole catalog of complaints that included day drinking, inaction on racial profiling and using his official Twitter account to follow a site for panty fetishists. (Any guesses on which of those is seen as least relevant to his ouster?)

Unlike Lawrence, Kansas, or Ames, Iowa, this Midwestern university town is one with an ugly history of slaveholding and public lynchings. In the last of these, in 1923, an African-American custodian at the University of Missouri was murdered by a mob after a 14-year-old white girl identified him as her rapist — at a distance of 30 feet, based mostly on the shape of his mustache.

A plaque at the bridge where that man, James T. Scott, was hanged is supposed to keep us from forgetting what happened here. But fresh reminders, online and off, on-campus and off, keep the memory from fading, too. On Jan. 3, which happened to be Chief Burton’s last day on the job, Columbia Police Lt. Brian Tate was suspended over a series of tweeted slurs and commentary on how much better off we’d be if the South had won the Civil War.

The next day, another Columbia officer was put on leave after she drove up on a sidewalk to supervise high school students boarding a school bus and accidentally mowed down the driver’s daughter, a 4-year-old girl. And that same day, Jan. 4, a volunteer EMS responder for Boone County was suspended and ordered to get diversity and anti-harassment training over what officials only described as an inappropriate Facebook post. Jim Crow-era attitudes aren’t even hooded any more, but are shouted on social media.

That’s made denial harder work than it used to be in this fast-growing but slow-changing town, which African Americans from elsewhere in Missouri know to approach with particular caution.

“We always think the worst,” says University of Missouri professor emerita Patty Placier, a member of the Race Matters, Friends racial justice advocacy group, “and then we find out it’s worse than we thought.”

Burton and former City Manager Mike Matthes, who resigned under pressure in November, had responded to the City Council’s unanimous decision to move the Columbia Police Department into more racially sensitive, 21st-century community policing practices by doing just the opposite: They delayed, argued that that shift would require a tax increase, and decided to scale back the department’s well-regarded Community Outreach Unit.

At one point, Burton told the local police review board outright that officers don’t want to do community-oriented policing because they “tend to get bored” unless they’re out busting bad guys. Those doing the dull work of preventing problems “don’t get any action, to be honest with you,” he said in the session, which was videotaped. “They want to go in cars and catch burglars and do all the things that police officers do.”

His departure, and all of the other recent turnover, could be an opportunity for Columbia, where officials who lost their jobs in 2018 also included the deputy city manager, whose position was eliminated, and the Columbia Public Schools CFO, who resigned after being charged with a felony. But will their permanent replacements be any more likely to address the past instead of just repeating it?

“You’re going to keep on getting the same thing,” says Bill Davis, a former police officer from Montgomery, Alabama, who in his first year on Columbia’s Citizens Police Review Board came to see the racism of local officers as even more pronounced than in his hometown.

In videotaped evidence to back up complaints that the board reviewed, said Davis, who is African-American, “I watched police talk down to citizens” and routinely say “very negative things” about, among others, former President Barack Obama, local racial justice activists and women judges. If you’ve filed a formal complaint about anything a local cop has done in recent years, there’s a good chance that it was Brian Tate, the now-suspended police lieutenant who made no secret of his bigoted views on Twitter, who looked into your allegations.

Both candidates in April’s mayoral election acknowledge that the Columbia Police Department is overdue for an overhaul. But the incumbent, Brian Treece, is a former lobbyist for the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. And his opponent, 72-year-old Chris Kelly, a former state legislator who deleted most of his old tweets before launching his campaign, wouldn’t seem to be a likely advocate for reform, either.

During a run a decade ago, Kelly apologized for joking that a female candidate’s campaign slogan should tout her “nice butt.” “It’s sadly the kind of thing I say,” he told reporters at the time. “I know who I am.”

Still, Kelly seems to know who Columbia cops are, too: If elected, he said at a recent campaign event, “I will make sure that the people who are terrified that their kids are going to be killed by police are involved in the hiring” of the next chief. “African-American people in Columbia, Missouri, they feel afraid of the police department ... We have to look for a chief who’s going to be committed to changing that.”

When Columbia starts expecting more from its officials and its police department, it will get it.

Editor’s note: This column originally incorrectly described the 4-year-old girl killed by a police car as African-American.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.