SOME MIGHT question Columbia’s plan to address growing concerns about how police respond to citizens — particularly black men and boys — but the city’s proactive approach should be applauded.
No, Columbia hasn’t had the tragic deaths we’ve seen in Florida, Missouri and New York, where unarmed black men were killed by white officers. No, Columbia doesn’t sit on a powder keg, racial or otherwise.
But let’s not be naive. We’re not immune. I grew up here in Columbia. While we’ve got some good relations, not all is well. If it were, I wouldn’t get some of the calls I do with interesting stories about local law enforcement. Thank goodness we haven’t had a Ferguson. Yet.
We dodged a proverbial bullet of unknown proportions in September when a white state trooper shot a black motorist pulled over near the Columbia city limits for a seat belt violation. Fortunately, the motorist survived, and state officials and others handled the matter well; the trooper was fired and charged.
Some say the way the case was handled shows we have strong relationships that enable us to deal with potential crises; others express more uneasiness over what happened.
And now Columbia is doing the right thing, and I think it will pay off down the road.
Not only did city officials announce a package of changes aimed at improving policing and preventing a disaster, but they also announced a pay raise for officers that could go a long way toward improving recruitment and retention.
Together, the changes will reassure the public while reaffirming support for the men and women in blue. Requiring more accountability, transparency and training doesn’t just protect the public; it protects officers as well. And the increase in pay, well, its effect goes without saying.
Mayor Steve Benjamin told me that the problems we’ve seen nationally are likely to fundamentally change the way we police and that Columbia’s intent is to get out front and be a model. Mr. Benjamin made it clear he was happy with many of Chief Skip Holbrook’s efforts and that he believes Columbia doesn’t have the same level of problems found in places such as Ferguson.
But he also sees the need to address concerns the public has and implement changes that help Columbia develop a top-level police department that once again is the pride of our capital city.
Mayor Benjamin and Chief Holbrook recently announced improvements that include outfitting every officer with a body camera and creating a commission to investigate discrimination or abuse in any city agency. The city also will experiment with making video and audio recordings of interrogations of suspects in violent crime cases beginning early next year.
Here is a sample of some of the other improvements:
• Increasing training in cultural diversity as well as dealing with people who are mentally ill or have chronic illnesses.
• Adding a civilian to the police department’s internal affairs review board.
• Hiring more minority officers so the police force more closely represents Columbia’s population. As it stands, 67 percent of Columbia police officers are white, while 29 percent of the officers are black and 4 percent are Hispanic. Columbia is 50 percent white, 41 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic.
• Intensifying recruitment of minorities and adding a minority to the police department’s hiring board.
The principles behind these changes are simple: If you’ve got a diverse population, it makes sense to have a diverse police force; people with similar backgrounds tend to have better rapport with one another. When civilians have seat at the table, it gives credibility to decisions made by police-review boards; people are less likely to be skeptical.
And who can knock training? Police officers, like most of us, have limitations and blind spots. The more they learn about other races and cultures, the more comfortable and able they will be to deal with tense situations, whether it’s approaching someone of another race or understanding how to deal with someone with a mental illness.
This is as much about protecting officers as it is protecting the public and suspects.
Just days after the announced changes, Mr. Holbrook and City Manager Theresa Wilson rolled out a 7 percent pay increase for all Police Department personnel in an effort to attract new recruits and retain current officers. The pay raise will take effect in the first pay period of 2015.
While Chief Holbrook announced the pay increase as a way of addressing the 45 vacancies the department is struggling to fill, it also sends a much-needed message that the city values its officers. At the moment, the starting salary for a non-certified police officer candidate is $30,494.44; that increases slightly based on the level of education a candidate has after graduating from the academy. The recent announcement means new hires will start at $32,628.
These changes won’t in and of themselves guarantee that we will avert tragedy. But they will make that more likely and, more importantly, send a message that Columbia takes the issue seriously and values its residents and its police officers.
Reach Mr. Bolton
at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.