City Manager Mike Matthes retracted a statement he made last week that he would not recommend ballot measures to pay for more police officers until the city’s police union fired its director.
Matthes said his comment made officers “feel uncertain about the future and that I was penalizing them for the actions of their union’s attorney.” He said it pained him to hear officers’ reactions and that he plans to propose a ballot measure for public safety in 2017.
The statement by Matthes came after Columbia Police Officers’ Association Executive Director Dale Roberts dubbed Aug. 9 “Darren Wilson Day” on the group’s Facebook page. Wilson was the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed black man Michael Brown last year on Aug. 9, sparking months of protests and unrest in Ferguson that drew international attention. Roberts’ post was criticized as being racially insensitive.
In response, Matthes sent an email to the Columbia City Council and Police Chief Ken Burton saying he would not recommend new ballot measures to fund additional police officers while Roberts was still heading the CPOA, citing the poor timing of Roberts’ Facebook post. The CPOA’s attorney wrote a letter asking Matthes to retract his comment.
Although Matthes retracted his previous statement and replaced it with the 2017 ballot measure proposal, he said he still condemns the continued “public relations nightmare” Roberts causes the police department.
“Only the CPOA can fix that problem, and I look forward to the day that they do that,” Matthes said.
Black community leaders and city council members backed Matthes in his condemnation of Roberts.
Activist Tyree Byndom, who is a member of the Columbia Egalitarian Cooperative, said toward the end of Monday’s council meeting that the group wants Roberts’ immediate resignation. Byndom said with Roberts as the union’s director, city police officers are not getting proper representation.
“We have no issues with any of our police officers, but if officers are a part of an organization that is supposed to bring civic pride and create unity in our community — which is a part of their charter from 1975 — when I look at their Facebook page and when I look at their posts, that is not what they are doing,” Byndom said.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said the city’s issues with Roberts extend beyond the “Darren Wilson Day” post. She said Roberts has a pattern of making “incendiary comments, claiming his statements are misunderstood and taking them back and apologizing.” Roberts poorly represents police officers and draws unnecessary attention to the community with his insensitive comments, Nauser said.
“The CPOA board has never condemned or addressed these comments; they have remained silent,” Nauser said. She quoted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as saying, “Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.”
Since last week, two board members have either referred all questions to Roberts or not responded to Tribune inquiries for comment. Roberts has refused to identify the other members of the five-person board.
First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin said as he reflects on Roberts’ history with the CPOA, he believes the recent comment posted on Facebook has given a “new energy” to local conversations on social equity. Rising tension between the police department and black community has forced Columbia to address the racism and systemic problems it likes to ignore, he said.
“It’s unfortunate and embarrassing and a very sad state of affairs, but when I look at it in a deeper way, I see it gives us an opportunity to talk about the deeper problem,” Ruffin said.
Mayor Bob McDavid said he is fascinated with the cultural sensitivity seminar the community has gone through over the past few days.
“It should make everybody in the community look into the mirror — especially those who don’t understand what the big deal is,” he said.