For Sgt. Robert Fox of the Columbia Police Department, community policing is “simply good policing.”
He believes positive interactions between police and Columbians are important not only for residents but also for the officers, who often see “too much trauma and pain” on their shifts.
That’s part of the reason City Manager Mike Matthes nominated Fox to lead the city’s community policing project when the resolution was passed by the Columbia City Council.
Fox has been tasked with developing a plan to involve more police officers in neighborhood interactions to build relationships with those communities.
Matthes said Fox’s interview set him apart from the five other officers who applied for the position.
“(Fox) focused a lot on how having a positive interaction with the public can really make a world of difference in the life of an officer,” Matthes said. “He said, ‘Cops need community policing just as much as the community does,’ and I thought that was a pretty fantastic insight.”
As project manager, Fox will create a plan in collaboration with the Police Department, Columbia residents and other stakeholders. The council resolution requires Matthes to present the proposal no later than Aug. 31, which gives Fox about six months before returning to his job at the Columbia Police Department.
Fox was selected from among five officers Matthes interviewed, and his appointment was supported by Police Chief Ken Burton and Columbia Police Officers’ Association Executive Director Dale Roberts.
Background and policing
Fox, who was born in Massachusetts but grew up in England, has a diverse background. He attended the University of Bradford and graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in community studies. He was in the reserves in England and served for 11 years, part-time, before being honorably discharged and moving to Missouri.
While in the reserves, Fox had jobs that focused on youth and communities, including work with charities and in England’s local government agencies. He worked with a project called New Horizons, which engaged young people in discussions about employment and where they want to go in life.
He also worked with the Leicestershire County Council, where he was transferred to social services to join a team that worked with young offenders ages 14 to 21. Fox said the team’s goal was “to reduce recidivism.”
Now at age 47, Fox has been a Columbia police officer for almost 13 years. Medics have told him three times that he has saved people’s lives with emergency medical care. The first time, he gave CPR to a man who stopped breathing until medics arrived — he received a meritorious service ribbon from the city for his actions.
The second time, Fox arrived on the scene of a home invasion robbery to find a Columbia resident on the ground, next to a tree, with a gunshot wound. He had been shot in the leg and was bleeding out, despite another officer’s attempts to apply pressure to the wound.
“I was carrying a tourniquet with me, and I applied the tourniquet. That was before all officers were issued tourniquets, but I had a tourniquet that I carried, that I bought myself,” Fox said.
That earned him another life-saving award.
In the final instance, Fox applied a chest seal to a gunshot victim. Although there have been other occasions where he has administered emergency medical care, Fox said these stand out the most.
“Those were the times when medics had said if it wasn’t for what I did, then that person would have died,” Fox said.
Fox served as acting sergeant for a year before he was permanently promoted in November 2015. He supervised the second shift, a squad of seven officers and three officers in training. In 2015 and 2016, Fox was nominated for supervisor of the year by his officers and peers.
Officer Derek Moore has worked with Fox for two years. He said the sergeant taught him how to apply what he learned in training, and offered valuable lessons about how to treat people.
“He helped shape and mold (me) into the person I am today,” Moore said.
Commitment to community policing
As sergeant, Fox promoted community police work among his team of officers by requiring them to make a non-enforcement contact with someone in their beat, whenever possible.
He advised his officers to prioritize single parents, ethnic minorities, the elderly and families in high-crime areas.
“They’ve been instructed to introduce themselves, start a conversation, find out what are their issues, if any,” Fox said. “We leave a business card to inform them that we work for them and to contact us if we can help them.”
He believes it is unhealthy for officers to be exposed to trauma for prolonged periods of time, and community policing was a way to combat that.
“That is one reason I insisted on it, so they would have at least one positive interaction with the public in their shift,” Fox said. “It’s truly been a win-win.”
The overall reception has been positive, despite some initial resistance from officers, he said.
“We very rarely go to the people that don’t need help. We go to the people that call us,” Moore said. “So that leaves a lot of the general population not really knowing who we are. Going out to those extra people and just saying hi and introducing ourselves and leaving a card, it’s a good way to tie us in with the community, and I think that was (Fox’s) goal.”
Fox said that’s the type of policing everyone wants to see in their neighborhoods.
“It’s the policing that good beat cops have been doing ever since (it was started), which is getting to know people, issues and problems in their beat and working in partnership with other people in other agencies to solve those problems,” he said.
The goal of community policing comes with challenges. Traci Wilson-Kleekamp of Race Matters, Friends, expressed her concerns the night the Columbia City Council passed the resolution that launched Fox’s work. She worried that too much of the conversation focused on distractions about staffing and money, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Fox, however, said moving past a hypothetical conversation about community policing requires discussions about things like “staffing, recruiting, pay, retention, morale and leadership within the Police Department.”
He said it is important to remember the city has a hierarchy of needs.
“A high-priority 911 domestic assault call, for example, will trump activities that people would like to see the police doing based on their opinion,” Fox said.
Some members of Race Matters, Friends, also have said on social media that Fox isn’t the ideal person to lead an effort toward community policing. In a Facebook post, Carol Brown cited Fox’s involvement in a February 2010 Columbia SWAT raid as a potential barrier.
When raiding the home of Jonathan Whitworth, SWAT officers — including Fox — fatally shot a pit bull and wounded a Welsh corgi. Whitworth’s wife and child were in the home during the raid, according to reports.
Officers found only a marijuana pipe and enough marijuana to lead to a misdemeanor charge during their search of Whitworth’s home. Video of the raid went viral online and the incident was heavily criticized.
“It’s important to remember that while, my understanding is, that was a somewhat controversial thing back then, the team didn’t do anything illegal,” Matthes said. “It was a by-the-book sort of SWAT exercise.”
Fox said SWAT enforcement is sometimes “the safest way to deal with specific situations.” He also said he was looking forward to working on community policing.
“I haven’t met Race Matters, Friends,” Fox said. “Their opinion is equally important as everyone else the department serves, and I look forward to meeting them.”
In the summer following the SWAT raid, Fox was briefly suspended for a comment he posted on a Columbia Daily Tribune article about a protest against the raid.
In the article, protester Gregg Williams was photographed carrying a “Stop Brutality” sign and quoted as saying, “I just want this to stop. It’s wrong for cops to do that stuff.”
Fox posted a comment on the Tribune website that referred to Williams, who had a juvenile record.
“Hahahahahah!!!!!! The guy with the ‘stop the brutality’ sign has multiple convictions for assaulting people with guns!!! I’d like him to stop the brutality of humans!” Fox wrote, according to the Tribune.
Fox was suspended for 120 hours without pay for violating his duty to safeguard information pertaining to Williams’ juvenile record.
“I was suspended in 2010,” Fox acknowledged. “In 2018, I am looking forward to working on community-oriented policing in Columbia.”
When selecting Fox for the position, Matthes said he was aware of these incidents but that they were not representative of his entire record with the Police Department.
“I knew about those two things,” Matthes said. “That happened before my time here with the city, so what I relied on was the whole record. I looked at his whole HR record, and when you do that, those things aren’t particularly troubling.”
Fox hopes his knowledge of the Police Department and experience as a sergeant will guide him as the community policing project manager.
“I think knowing our officers and knowing how our department works will hopefully help to make this transition to community-oriented policing more efficient by keeping it focused and realistic,” Fox said.
He also emphasized that this plan will be more than a hypothetical one.
“This is about a plan for implementation,” Fox said. “It’s about a service that’s provided to people in the city every hour, and because of that the plan has to be realistic and sound.”
Fox’s officers said they were sad to see him go, even for the time being, but they hope he’ll achieve good results.
“I’m sad that he’s not my sergeant anymore, but other than that he’s a great choice,” Moore said. He added, however, that some officers are hesitant about community policing because they see the community-outreach unit attending barbecues, for example, but not engaging in “any actual police action.”
Although some officers see negative aspects of community policing, Moore believes Fox will be able to balance the needs of the community with the duties of police officers.
“I think Fox will be able to show the department that it’s two sides of the same coin,” Moore said. “I think he’s going to show us the benefits.”
Fox believes his experience will help him facilitate cooperation among multiple stakeholders and agencies. This will be no small task, considering Fox believes all residents and visitors to the city of Columbia are stakeholders with valuable opinions.
Matthes said one thing that has been striking about Fox’s approach is his willingness to be open to different viewpoints.
“I’ve been really struck by his openness, his real intent to facilitate without leading discussion but drawing it out,” Matthes said. “He’s not got an outcome he’s got in mind that he’s trying to shoot for. It’s a real honest, honorable conversation he’s trying to create with everyone in the community.”
Fox also hopes to get the opinions of residents who don’t regularly attend community meetings.
“I will have failed in my job if the plan I produce is what a vocal few want and not what the city as a whole wants and needs.”