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December 4, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Nestled in the corner of Providence Road and Rogers Street, Douglass Park is a hive of activity on a Sunday afternoon in October. On the surface, it appears no different than other city parks. In fact, it is one of the most used parks in Columbia.
Built in the late 1930s, the 8-acre park is replete with trees bearing fall colors, a baseball field, picnic tables, two red-roofed shelters, a pool and a lone barbecue grill. Kids twist their way down a yellow playground slide and take turns on swings while kicking up sun-baked mulch as they fly ever higher. Parents push strollers while the noise from Providence Road drowns their toddlers’ cries. Vacant, the newly renovated Douglass pool sits poised for warmer months. On the adjacent basketball courts, friends cheer on their peers in the midst of a competitive pickup game. In other words, Douglass seems like a colloquial walk in the park.
According to racial profiling data submitted by the Columbia Police Department to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, blacks were arrested in far greater proportion to their population than any other racial group in 2007. Blacks comprise 10.16 percent of Columbia’s 16 and older population of 77,083. They score 2.33 for traffic stops and 3.73 for arrests on a scale where a number greater than 1 indicates overrepresentation in statistics. A value of 1 means disparity does not exist between a race’s proportion of arrests and population; less than 1 signifies underrepresentation. Whites are 81.19 percent of the population, and they scored 0.88 for traffic stops and 1.09 for arrests.
Yet, this veneer is misleading considering the tension that simmers beneath. It simmers because of the label associated with the park and those who use it. It simmers between those who disregard the law and the Columbia Police Department that must enforce it; it simmers when the police find themselves sandbagged by a community that doesn’t trust them and won’t cooperate; it simmers when that same community feels police use categorical labels that inadvertently mix innocent with guilty and those same officers fail to address their mistakes.
A year’s headlines
Douglass Park has been in the news this year. A shooting April 16 injured two men. An 18-year-old man and a 25-year-old man sustained gun shot wounds in the leg and ankle, respectively. The Columbia Police Department was unsure if the fight was gang-related.
A June 12 stabbing sent two men to the hospital. The police found a broken bottle and fresh blood under the larger shelter near Rogers Street. That same night after Twilight Festival, a fight broke out among minors on the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets. The disturbance eventually grew into a crowd of 100 to 150 people and moved behind Douglass High School before police were able to disperse it. Police heard but could not confirm that someone was carrying a gun. In a rare move, the park was shut down for the rest of the evening.
On June 30, officers patrolling the area approached a vehicle in the small parking lot abutting Rogers Street. The smell of marijuana prompted a search that yielded a few grams of crack cocaine, prescription pills and a .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Besides issuing felony possession charges, the police discovered that three of the four vehicle occupants had outstanding warrants: Montez D. Quinn, 18, had a felony warrant for possession of drugs with intent to distribute; Bilal H. Hill, 31, had one for felony second-degree domestic assault, misdemeanor third-degree domestic assault and a misdemeanor traffic warrant; Justin E. Lewis, 22, had a felony warrant for possession of a controlled substance.
Most recently, in the early afternoon of Nov. 4, two men in a black Chevrolet Malibu pulled into Douglass Park’s smaller parking lot. Three independent witnesses say Grady F. Dortch Jr., 28, exited the vehicle and fired a small caliber handgun at Miles Heard, 28. Heard died shortly after arriving at University Hospital from bullet wounds in the right side of his chest and left thigh. Dortch was arrested for first-degree murder and armed criminal action after turning himself in a day later.
These incidents exacerbate a negative image that began in the mid-1980s with the appearance of crack cocaine. An increase in drug activity and related violence led the police chief at the time, William Dye, to form a task force in the First Ward. That, along with an added emphasis on neighborhood policing, made significant headway in cleaning up Douglass Park. Unfortunately, the efforts didn’t last, and the poor perception of the park continues to grow.
One frigid October evening, Chief First Ward Ambassador Tracy Edwards sits in a small foyer connected to the Douglass High School gym. His red fleece with “First Ward Ambassadors” in yellow stitching on the left breast can’t keep the cold at bay, so he inches closer to the hot water pipes and watches kids play basketball.
“Douglass Park is a social gathering place,” Edwards says. “It’s our community’s gathering place. That’s where we come together.” He pushes the door open to let a few late stragglers join the team in the gym. The shouts of the teammates bounce loudly off the walls. Over the noise, he reluctantly acknowledges the reputation the park has acquired over the years. “Douglass Park has been categorically grouped with Section 8 housing, poverty, drugs and crime,” Edwards says. But the perception that many who live near, use or just happen to pass through the park engage in criminal activity is wrong.
Bill Thompson knows this better than anyone. As a recreation specialist with Columbia Parks and Recreation for 27 years, he has worked diligently to reshape the park into a family-friendly gathering spot. A middle-aged man, Thompson sits cross-legged in an empty second-floor room at the Armory on Ash and Seventh streets. A white collared shirt and khaki slacks with a black cell phone holster at the waist dress his small frame. He is a gentle man whose warm smile spreads his face wide. Thompson has worked hard to clear Douglass Park’s name, but his smile is strained when he thinks of recent incidents that have caught the public’s attention.
“Sometimes, when the image of something is tainted, it takes 20 times the effort to change it,” he says with a degree of weariness.
What Thompson knows is that some in the community see a lot of drinking, gambling and loitering at Douglass Park. They also see drug activity. “Visually, that makes the average person not feel comfortable going into the park,” he says. “There are people who a have a lot of pride in that neighborhood. They don’t like a lot of the things they see.”
Because people fear confronting suspicious behavior in the park, the community remains silent, and little is accomplished. “The thing that is frustrating is that all the positive things that go on in the park are overshadowed by one or two negative incidents,” Thompson says.
Every three years, a homecoming of sorts is held at Douglass Park when those spread out all over the U.S. return to the neighborhood and the school they once attended. Started in 1957, the Black and White Ball is a weekend-long celebration that attracts crowds 2,000 strong. Other positive uses of Douglass Park include peace rallies, little league baseball games and the annual black heritage celebration, Juneteenth Days. One of the most popular events, Moonlight Hoops, is a chance for adolescents and adults to lace up their Nikes and compete in a basketball league Tuesday and Wednesday nights from early June to early August.
“We’ve been working hard to present Douglass Park as a safe and positive community gathering place,” says Mike Hayes, a Columbia police officer who was instrumental in reviving the Moonlight Hoops league after a brief lull in the late ’90s. Like Thompson, Hayes is perturbed by how the park’s outsized reputation has dwarfed encouraging developments. Putting blame on the venue instead of those responsible for illegal activity in the park is not constructive and only makes matters worse, he says.
“The reality is that Douglass Park is one of Columbia’s treasures that is not properly utilized,” Hayes says.
Questioning the system
Nathan Stephens, another First Ward Ambassador, recognizes the same frustration Thompson does when the public cites sporadic incidents of violence as proof of a dangerous park.
He says the police must consider that not everyone wearing white T-shirts, sagging pants and driving on 22-inch rims around Douglass Park is engaged in criminal activity. “When you use a particular lens, you see through that lens and miss so much more.”
The Police Department’s aggressiveness is cause for concern, especially when race is used to profile a suspect and when the innocent are swept up with the guilty. Stephens says police officers have told him that the kids who are dealing drugs are hanging out with the kids who are not. “So if they are all on the corner together, it is difficult for the officers to determine who’s doing what,” he says. “I recognize that.” What Stephens doesn’t approve of is when an officer makes the decision to rush the corner, slam everyone down and then find out who has what. When the police don’t know who is involved, they become very aggressive, he says. The end does not justify the means. It’s all about how officers approach the situation.
Although data suggesting racial profiling can’t be interpreted as proof of Police Department malfeasance, it is one of many things that Stephens believes is causing tension and frustration between the black community and the Police Department. The negativity and frustration contribute to an atmosphere of mutual disrespect. Trust is lost in what becomes a vicious circle of finger pointing and counter arguments.
Stephens says it’s common that when someone complains of harassment or profiling to the Columbia Police Department, the response will be, “Well, we found that the officer didn’t do anything outside of department
policy.” Then, Stephens says, people begin to think that it’s not worth the trip to go through filling out the form.
“You begin to get frustrated because of the system,” he says. “What happens is that those stories occur so frequently that [they become] normal. What I see in this community is a powder keg. And you cannot keep applying pressure to a powder keg. It’s going to explode.”
Rather than an explosion, the frustration, lack of trust and contempt result in the slow destruction of the working relationship between the Douglass Park community and the Police Department.
Police need the community as a partner in their efforts to steer kids away from crime and keep career criminals in jail. Police also need the community’s help in solving homicides and keeping drugs out of schools and parks.
In cases such as the Election Day shooting, the Police Department needs witnesses willing to give testimony. These testimonies allow the department to bring charges against potential suspects. But when a police officer conducting an investigation cannot find anyone willing to step forward and offer testimony, cases remain open, criminals are let loose, and officers become frustrated with a community they see as cooperating with criminals.
While the department was investigating the April shooting, no one at Douglass Park or any nearby residents were willing to come forward with information. There were a couple dozen people who might have witnessed the June stabbings, but they offered no names or assailant descriptions. The same can be said of the Election Day shooting. Approximately 50 people were present when Heard was shot, but while several gave information, many others remained silent or the left the area.
Also known as snitching, narcing or ratting, providing the police with information is unthinkable in some
communities. The Italian Mafia famously had their own honor code that stigmatized any relationship with law authorities. Called Omertà, or code of silence, arrested Mafiosi were expected to keep their mouths shut even if they were arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. Failure to follow the code was said to be punishable by death.
Ronald Moten, co-founder of PeaceOholics, a Washington, D.C.-based urban community outreach group, says the difficulties encountered by police are rooted in a common misconception of snitching.
After many years of working with D.C.’s homicide, witness intimidation, drug and gang problems, Moten knows the difference between helping police solve a murder and testifying against someone to receive reduced criminal charges. He believes understanding snitching is essential to the survival of black communities. “A citizen exercising their right to live in a safer environment is not a snitch,” Moten says. “Providing information on a partner in crime to get a lower sentence is.”
Despite any difference in interpretation, many still will not agree to cooperate with the police, Moten says. He explains that in addition to the history of slavery, realities of poverty, lack of education and poor police
protection have left many black communities to develop their own coping strategies for dealing with internal problems — especially when snitching involves putting violent criminals in jail. Moten says snitching is witness intimidation’s sibling.
“It’s a big risk for people in some communities to work with the police,” Moten says. “Some people think that they might get hurt. Police need to know that knocking on someone’s door might end up getting someone killed.”
During a recent sojourn to Douglass Park, only one nearby resident was willing to talk about snitching. Four others quickly left the area, refusing to give their names much less discuss recent events at the park. After
asking this reporter for identification and checking under his clothes for a wire, one resident spoke briefly without giving his full name. He called himself Drew. Slightly agitated that the others had left so quickly, he adjusted his navy blue stocking cap and gave a furtive glance toward Rogers Street.
He used harsh words while describing snitches. “If you snitch, it can get you killed. People are going to do whatever they can do to get out of prison. [Most are] not man enough to take the charge.”
Nobody wants to snitch because nobody wants to be seen collaborating with a police department and officers who profile, act unnecessarily aggressive or fail to show due respect. Stephens says a common feeling in the community is: “I’m willing to work with you, to give you the benefit of the doubt, but when you screw me, you are adding to the problem. Why would I want to help you do your job? You have to keep in mind that you might want me to testify for the very same officers who have showed me a lack of respect in the past. Feeling disrespected, the feeling of being disempowered, disenfranchised and treated as second-class citizens, all of that, and you want me to help you prosecute someone who looks like me?”
A neighborhood in transition
The roots of Douglass Park’s problems run deep, and the path to untangle them is arduous. The black community doesn’t often agree on such highly sensitive, polarized issues of culture, race and law and order, but the consensus for greater responsibility from within has spread.
Over glasses of soda at the Heidelberg, First Ward Ambassador Rev. James Gray and Charles Neville of the Minority Men’s Network pointed out the same problem. Both dressed neatly in sleek business suits, Gray is the larger man with the more boisterous personality. They explain that a young kid hanging out at Douglass Park might feel a strong resentment toward a Columbia police officer because of profiling.
To an officer, a kid might think: “You’re a cop,” Gray says. “You could be the nicest guy in the world, but don’t run up on me because you think that I did something. Speak to me like I’m somebody. Don’t treat me like a criminal.”
Adding to the conversation, Neville says racial profiling is not the entire problem. “Is part of that heightened because of the color of our skin?” Neville asks. “Maybe. But again it goes back to, ‘What are we doing in our community first?’”
Gray knows there are issues his community needs to take care of but is failing to do so. “If there are problems that are indigenous to certain areas like drugs, that’s all they see,” he says. “That’s all these kids grow up into. Those are the only options that they think they have. We need to go back to the way things used to be where the community raised the kids.
“We have to realize — we as citizens — we have to take responsibility for what we are doing,” he says. “The easy way out is to blame other people.”
At times, KOPN Straight Talk Radio co-host Wynna Faye Elbert thinks that the black community quilt is fraying at the edges. Slightly slouched, Elbert carries herself with a grace that belies her age. She is a treasure trove of stories and is collecting many more as she finishes compiling an extensive history of Columbia’s black history. Today, she notices changes within the community that have made it difficult to confront problems at Douglass Park.
The close-knit neighborhood from Elbert’s childhood doesn’t exist anymore. Back then, parents and neighbors would look out for one another’s kids and cooperate when problems arose in the area.
“Neighbors were real neighbors,” she says. “Neighbors corrected each other’s kids if it was necessary. Today, I can’t tell your kids what to do because you don’t know half the people in the neighborhood anymore. I used to be able to tell you everyone who lived in the neighborhood.”
Thompson believes the community will get together to find out what is going to get the park looking the way it should — a good park where positive things take place and negative activity is discouraged.
“People have a lot of pride in that neighborhood,” Thompson says. “But we need to have a sense of pride in who we are. If there is going to be any change, this is the attitude the whole community has got to take.”
The consensus is that more community policing could help ease public concern. In interviews, some remember how in the ’80s and early ’90s police would give kids at Douglass Park Kansas City Chiefs trading cards, throw horseshoes or play dominoes. Elbert laughs when she thinks of a particular community workshop sponsored by the department that had officers participating in an ad hoc rapping session. “They knew the kids and the kids knew them,” Elbert says. “They used to be able to call you by name. That was how much they were hanging around the park.”
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz hopes the department will re-emphasize community policing. He recognizes the image evoked by the First Ward and Douglass Park and that Columbians are sometimes ignorant about both. “Most people who don’t live or don’t walk by Douglass Park make stereotypes that don’t match reality,” he says.
The police could ease some of the tension by better familiarizing themselves with community leaders and making their presence felt not with a squad car but a simple conversation. “We need officers out on the streets who really know their communities and are building alliances that create accountability,” Sturtz says. These alliances will let officers distinguish the troublemakers from the others.
On Oct. 19, Columbia Parks and Recreation, First Ward Ambassadors and the Frederick Douglass Coalition hosted an annual celebration of the Million Man March under the large red shelter at Douglass Park. Originally organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in 1995, the march in Washington, D.C., drew attention to voter registration, the importance of community unity and improved family values.
Hoping to build upon the message from this historic event, Edwards, Gray, Stephens and Elbert gave speeches on moral guidance for youth and a greater effort to prevent crime. However, many present also voiced their indignation over police harassment and frustration with the department’s complaint system, or lack thereof. Most were disappointed with profiling and rampant stereotyping.
A few yards from the shelter and across the small parking lot, young men sitting at a picnic table looked agitated by the crowd at the park. As they smoked Black & Milds and pulled from beer cans wrapped in paper bags, they seemed to have little concern for the 13th annual celebration. The reverberations from the speakers in the trunk of their light blue Chevy Cutlass almost drowned out a few speeches. Some in the group cast wary glances at media covering the event and looked as if they wished the attention were elsewhere.
The event was just another example of Douglass Park’s perceptual dichotomy at play. It is the crucible for the discomfort between Columbia’s black community and the Police Department.
In locking arms, the 40 or so residents participating in the Million Man March celebration seemed to be able to re-stitch the tattered ends of the black community quilt and defiantly confront the incidents of violent behavior, drugs and gambling head-on. Standing in silence, they bowed their heads and closed their eyes. For an instant, their promises to one another of unity in the face of adversity seemed to wash the negativity away.