Drop by Black Box Barber Shop on a Friday or Saturday, and chances are some of the people in the chairs lining the orange and white wall aren’t there for a haircut or a shave.
“The barbershop is definitely a pillar of the community,” said Derrick Gibson, a barber at Black Box who’s been cutting hair nearly 30 years. “You get to be the ear that someone wants to vent to. That time you come and spend in that chair is a time to say, ‘I want to get away from everything, and I want to talk to somebody,’ and that barber is that person.”
Barbershops are seen as a place to gather, gossip and socialize, particularly in the African-American community. And Columbia police want to create a dialogue with area barbers to find out what issues are troubling certain communities – and to get feedback on their policing efforts.
“There’s probably no better group that has their finger on the pulse of a community than barbers and beauticians,” Chief Skip Holbrook said. “They’re influential in their communities. It’s a place where our legitimacy is discussed and trust in law enforcement is discussed.”
More than two-dozen barbers met with city officials Monday to discuss the “Cops and Barbershops” initiative. Mayor Steve Benjamin called barbershops “a safe place” in the African-American community.
What we want to see is the people that are assigned to our area – we want to know who they are, who the police are.
Moses Felder, barber at Hill’s Barber Shop
“It’s one of the few places you can say what’s on your mind, you can say what you’re thinking,” he said.
Police also are hoping to foster police interaction with kids and possibly steer them toward a career in law enforcement, allowing more “homegrown” officers to join the force, according to Holbrook.
“I learned how to be a man when I went to the barbershop as a kid,” said Deputy Chief Melron Kelly, a Columbia native with nearly 20 years on the force. “Our goal for this type of event is to continue working with the community to strategize on ways to reduce crime.”
After explaining some of the changes the agency has made amid increased tensions nationwide between communities and law enforcement, Holbrook asked the barbers how police can work with them to stay attuned to happenings in their communities.
“What we want to see is the people that are assigned to our area – we want to know who they are, who the police are,” said Moses Felder, 77, a lifelong Columbia resident who cuts hair at Hill’s Barber Shop on Elmwood Avenue. “We want you to stop in sometime. We want to know who you are.”
Felder said a talking point in his shop years ago was the declining trust and faith in the police department.
“The community didn’t know which way we were going because we didn’t have good leadership down there,” he said. “Chief Holbrook came in and gave the community some hope. Chief (Charles) Austin did an outstanding job as chief, but between that time they dug a hole for Chief Holbrook, and I think he’s dug the city of Columbia out of a big hole. You can come sit in my shop and people will tell you that.”
A recurring topic today is the amount of gun violence in the city, especially among young people, Felder said.
“What are we gonna do to our politicians? How can they curb it and eliminate so many of these young boys getting guns on the street and shooting each other?” he said. “It’s no respect anymore.”
The barbers, and those who congregate at the shop, try to talk with the younger patrons about making good choices and staying away from gangs, Felder said.
“They catch them when they’re young and tempt them with money and gold chains around their neck to let them know it’s all right to do this,” he said of gangs. “It’s a love thing. When he comes from a broken family, he hasn’t had any love. He’s surrounded by people now – all of them carry guns.”
At Black Box, on Millwood Avenue downtown, Gibson said they talk with kids about the importance of education and making good choices. Gibson, who spent time in prison for a drug conviction, tells kids “incarceration is for real.”
There’s probably no better group that has their finger on the pulse of a community than barbers and beauticians.
Chief Skip Holbrook, Columbia Police Department
“Whatever you want to be, you can be” it, he tells them. “You don’t have to be a drug dealer, the thug or the tattooed neck with guns.”
Sometimes he even asks for a report card.
“If you’ve got a C-plus, that tells me you’ve got the potential to make a B,” he said. “The potential to make a B, that means you have the potential to make an A-minus.”
He hopes the “Cops and Barber Shops” initiative can facilitate discussions not just between barbers and officers, but also clients, community members and leaders.
“Come to the barbershop,” he said. “Now we’ve got a different setting because you’re hearing a different voice. You’re hearing a voice of the community.”