Law Enforcement Support

A few weeks ago, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for quite some time. He is a Columbia police officer, so there was plenty of fodder to dive right into a meaningful conversation without having to muddle through the usual niceties. There was plenty to discuss. We lamented the hostile environment that exists toward police officers and what seems to be a diminishing level of support from elected and public officials. After our brief visit, I walked away from the conversation feeling ashamed of the lack of support our community shows for our local law enforcement officers.

It is a difficult time to be a Columbia police officer. Many have found themselves paying the price for the misdeeds of some officers in faraway places; some have legitimate concerns right here in Columbia as to whether or not their own police chief and other city officials have their back. And last November, Columbia voters may have sent an unintended message when they soundly rejected a property tax increase that would have funded 40 new police officers.

Fueled by the civil unrest in Ferguson and a growing number of other cities across the country, Columbia has seen its share of protests and counter-protests. The “anti-cop” sentiment has also trickled into our community with protesters carrying signs proclaiming the misdeeds of “killer cops” and indiscriminately throwing around allegations of racism and profiling. What some might have hoped would simply raise awareness about racial disparity has actually evolved into a dangerous indictment of our local police force.

With what is the equivalent of throwing gasoline on an already hot fire, local NAACP head Mary Ratliff has threatened to bring protestors from Ferguson and St. Louis to Columbia. Why? Because she feels the need to flex a sagging muscle as the black community struggles to find a unified voice among a handful of disparate factions with conflicting agendas. Unfortunately, Ratliff’s brand of medicine only exacerbates the situation, driving a wedge between those who want to help and those who want to be helped.

We’ve watched as claims of insensitivity and discrimination escalated to open hostility toward anyone dressed in a law enforcement uniform. The execution-style murder of a sheriff’s deputy in Texas last August is proof positive that things are clearly out of control. Imagine what might happen if Ratliff delivered on her threat and protestors filled the streets of Columbia. The residual effect of such an event would set back race relations in our community for many years.

There are solutions to help ease some of these tensions. A group of citizens that made up the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence has already submitted a long list of recommendations that, to date, seems to have been ignored. Much of what this group suggested would go a long way toward establishing trust between law enforcement and a disenfranchised black community. Allowing the report to gather dust on a shelf in City Hall falls in line with much of the “lip service” paid to race relations in our community, further eroding any hope for trust. There are deep scars and long memories that predate Columbia’s urban renewal efforts and the taking of Sharp End. Recent inaction by city leaders only pours salt on those wounds.

In the 1990s, then-mayor Darwin Hindman tapped Columbians Gary Oxenhandler and Alvin Plummer to lead a Race Relations Task Force. That committee’s work spanned a period of several years. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the findings and recommendations of this group nearly two decades ago mirror the final work of the 2014 effort. Our failure to take action — through either acceptance or flat-out rejection of the recommendations — further complicates a sticky situation. Columbia is not the only city in the United States facing these issues; we could learn a lot from similar-size cities and major metropolitan areas alike.

Above all, we’ve got to stop blaming the victim. Local law enforcement agencies aren’t the cause of the problem; they are simply the most convenient target. Charged with maintaining the peace when unresolved tensions flair, much of the angst and anxiety has been misdirected at those who are simply trying to maintain calm. If there are bad cops on the force, we should remove them in the most judicious and expedient manner. But casting out the baby with the bath water is not a fair or workable solution. We must, as a community, work to find ways to honor and respect those who deserve it most