Redeeming Douglass Park
A local park has gained a reputation as an incubator for crime. Not everyone agrees on how to fix it. Meet Albert and Sam, two park regulars whose goals for the central-city hangout stand in opposition.
Douglass Park is a second home to Albert.
He’s alone in the middle of one of the three ashy pink basketball courts. A wiry black man with the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old, he walks out into the afternoon sun with a plate of spaghetti in his right hand and a lit cigarette in his left.
With his arms held above his head and spread past his shoulders, he sways back and forth to the music’s rhythm with a subtle-but-confident two-step. Slowly, he dances over to the disc jockey’s table and announces that it’s his birthday.
I ask his last name. Without a word, he reaches into his pocket and tosses a creased, Missouri nondriver ID onto a picnic table. Albert Lee Butler. He looks into me with dark brown eyes, bloodshot with thin red veins that cloud the surrounding white. They’re tired eyes that fill his narrow face with pain or passion, or perhaps he’s just high. If he’s not, he will be soon.
Earlier that afternoon, Butler celebrated alongside the Columbia Police Department’s foot patrol officers James Meyer and Jamie Dowler, who spent nearly every day of the summer at the park.
Crime is what drives Sam Brady’s involvement at Douglass Park.
The baseball coordinator for Columbia Parks & Recreation, Brady grew up in the St. Louis housing project his mother managed. He has worked and volunteered in Columbia for the past 13 years. He coached for the Columbia Youth Basketball Association and is currently coaching seventh-grade basketball in the North Callaway R-1 School District.
“Crime turns my stomach,” Brady explains. “I hate crime. I’m not afraid to walk up to a person and say ‘This is not the right way to live.’ ”
Butler and Brady are both black, and both regulars at Douglass Park, where nearby crime, poverty and drug use have dragged down its reputation for decades.
Both men have different ideas for Douglass, and the Columbia Police Department is doing its best to intermediate. The question remains: What’s the best way to redeem Douglass?
Rebuilding A Reputation
At 8.4 acres, Douglass Park is nowhere near Columbia’s biggest. But it’s one of only two city parks or facilities with an outdoor pool and water slide, as well as a splash zone with 31 water jets. South of the pool are the basketball courts, all with electronic scoreboards. North of the pool, there’s a playground bordered by pines and Gingko trees.
Douglass High School is at the park’s south end. The school opened in 1885 as “Cummings Academy,” an all-black high school. It’s now Columbia Public School’s alternative high school.
For years, Douglass Park has suffered from a poor public image. Situated across Providence Road from the city’s housing projects, it’s in the middle of Columbia Police Department’s beat 20, which has historically been one of the city’s highest crime areas.
Even when problems occur outside the park, Douglass Park stills gets a bum rap in the press.
When DeAudre Orlando Johnson was shot and killed last March one block west of the park, “Douglass Park” appeared in a Columbia Missourian article about the crime. KOMU-TV8 referred to it as a “Douglass Park shooting,” and the Columbia Daily Tribune referenced the incident as “near Douglass Park.”
The same thing happened last June. When a random shooting wounded four teens near the Providence Road footbridge, KOMU’s headline included the phrase “near Douglass Park.”
Countering these events, articles in the Tribune and the University of Missouri student newspaper The Maneater delved into the park’s public image and Brady’s efforts to rebuild softball and baseball leagues.
But Douglass’ poor reputation runs deeper than words, and fixing the problems plaguing the park isn’t something Brady, or the police, have been able to do alone.
King Of The Park
Last fall, on Sept. 22, Albert Butler celebrated his 31st birthday.
It’s a beautiful day: temperatures in the 60s, sunny and breezy. The pavilion is packed, typical for a Douglass Park Saturday.
Retired DJ and park regular Curtis “Boogieman” Soul decided to celebrate the September birthdays of patrol officers Meyer and Dowler in combination with “Blues in the Park,” a free alternative to downtown’s annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.
Butler sits facing me at a picnic table in the pavilion. He’s eating a barbecue sandwich and Tiger Stripe ice cream and talking about cutting hair to provide for his five children. Sixteen-year-old Keiondre, the oldest, lives with Butler’s sister, Donisha, in Columbia.
The youngest, Malaki, 3, lives with his mother, also in Columbia. The other three live in St. Louis with their mother.
Something metallic in Butler’s right ear catches my eye: a nickel.
Some younger friends call him over. Albert records a video on his cellphone as they rant jubilantly about him.
The group’s dreadlocked leader, who introduces himself as “Kinfolk,” withdraws a two-pack of “Jazz” Black and Mild’s. It’s a new flavor, subject to an old trick. He hands one to Butler.
“This yo birthday blunt n*gga,” he says. “Don’t let nobody hit this but you.”
Butler pulls a lighter from his jeans pocket, lights the blunt and takes a few hits. The smell of marijuana fills the air as he exhales. He holds the blunt up in front of his face and looks at me.
“We aren’t trying to hurt nobody,” he says.
Vigilante Of The Park
Sam Brady loves Columbia but he hates crime. He has good reason. He remembers as if it were yesterday.
In 1996, Brady was 30 years old, living in St. Louis with his newborn son, Jonah. He worked as a certified nurse’s assistant at a nursing home and was struggling to keep up with rent.
One day, his friend Willie Neal stopped by to lend him money. Neal, Brady’s best friend since the sixth grade, joined the St. Louis Police Department as an undercover officer after getting out of the Army.
Before he left, Neal asked Brady to come out to his car; he wanted to show him something. In the driveway, Neal popped the trunk and stood back to let Brady admire his police equipment. One item in particular caught Brady’s eye.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Brady was concerned. “You need to wear that vest, because what you do is dangerous.”
The next day, Willie Neal died from a gunshot to the chest. He wasn’t wearing his vest.
Brady gave the eulogy at Neal’s funeral,. He doesn’t remember a word of what he said, but he still has a copy of the obituary. Now in Columbia, Brady’s committed to righting the evils that took his best friend.
He lives on Columbia’s south side with his wife, Heather, and their three teenagers — Jonah, Mariah and Tyler. A 6½ -mile drive to Douglass Park takes him right past the small white house on Worley Street belonging to Albert’s mother, Margaret.
Brady began his work at Douglass Park with hundreds of decks of cards he got from his uncle, who owns a gambling boat. He handed them out to the people in the pavilion to get to know them on a personal level. He wanted, and needed, their trust.
Last summer, Brady’s main priority was revamping the park’s youth baseball league. By mid-April, only 26 kids had signed up. He knocked on doors to recruit more players and parent volunteers. His efforts paid off, and he recruited 159 players (triple the previous year’s number) to form 10 teams.
Brady also formed an adult softball league and helped fund a special game between a Douglass Park team and a combined squad from the Columbia police and fire departments.
His efforts have been praised in the Columbia Tribune, but Brady knows he still has plenty of work to do.
At “Blues in the Park,” Officer Meyer was dressed in a black Columbia Police Department T-shirt, jeans and black New Balance sneakers. Unarmed and off duty, he was there to celebrate his birthday, as well as the successful summer for the foot patrol.
The patrol began in May to increase positive police presence in the park.
“When the (department) brought us in, they told us it was going to be about opening lines of communication between us and the public,” Meyer says, “and building relationships more than it was going to be about criminal enforcement,”.
Meyer and Dowler’s work fits the community policing strategy, which uses “proactive units” that are more about handshakes than handcuffs, and more about understanding more than enforcement. The idea is if people see the cops regularly, and a mutual respect is established, those with marijuana will put it in their pockets and keep it out of sight.
“The more they saw us, the more they realized we weren’t there to try to come down with an iron fist,” Dowler says. “We’re there to get to know them, and get to know their problems on a personal level.”
While some might take advantage of this approach, Meyer says the park regulars aren’t the troublemakers. Fighters, belligerent drinkers and drug dealers are escorted from the park to cut down on major problems.
Consequently, there were no major disturbances or violent occurrences on the Douglass Park grounds all summer.
But Brady isn’t satisfied. He doesn’t think the issue at the park is just about race or poverty or crime. To him, it all comes down to keeping substances away from children.
So he enforces his own rules. When he’s there working his summer league, he makes sure everyone behaves.
“These are my people,” he says. “I love them; they love me. They don’t do things during my program.”
While Butler was smoking his birthday blunt at “Blues in the Park,” young children were bouncing, swinging and running around the playground right behind him.
By the time Margaret Butler woke up on Sept. 28, her sons Albert and Travis were being handcuffed in the front entryway of her house.
As Albert sat on the porch talking to Malaki’s mother, Travis saw a detective out front, who asked him to come outside with his hands up.
Albert and Travis were arrested on suspicion of second-degree robbery of the Phillips 66 convenience store at 126 S. Providence Road.
Surveillance footage showed the two in the store at 3:33 a.m., along with Jeremy Burnett, who evaded arrest for more than a week before turning himself in. According to a Columbia Police Department media release, all three men were involved in the robbery.
As Albert was led away, he told his mother, “I’ll talk to you when I get through.” She says she had a bad feeling about things from the start.
“I think Albert’s going to get the short end of the stick,” she says.
The Loss Of Freedom
8:45 a.m. Monday, Oct. 8: It is fifteen minutes into the weekly visitation period for Boone County Jail inmates with last names beginning with A or B.
After checking in with a guard — I am Albert Butler’s one allowed visitor this week ― I go through a door to my left, pass through a metal detector and walk through another door. Butler will meet me in Stall 4.
Through the doors is a row of chairs across from a glass wall. Small dividers more arbitrary than urinal walls separate the stalls.
I sit down in Stall 4’s chair and wait for Butler. After a minute or so, he walks in from somewhere off to the left.
Apparently, he was expecting someone else. He almost walks right past me, but shoots a sideways glance my way as I wave. He points inquisitively at himself, and I nod.
He’s dressed in faded black-and-white-striped prison garb with pen writing on the white stripes. The scribblings look like the incomprehensible graffiti scratched into grade-school desks.
I’m taken aback by the stripes; they’re so dated they’re almost farcical. I expected orange.
Butler sits down on the short metal stool and picks up the phone off the blue block receiver. I do the same, but there’s a busy tone. I glance at the instructions on the receiver.
We exchange a confused look. He cradles the phone’s bottom in his hand and holds up an index finger, signaling for me to wait. My receiver blinks three round lights and I pick up.
“Hello?” I clear my throat and fumble through small talk. It’s nearly impossible to hear him over the others in the visiting room. I ask how he’s holding up.
He is dejected and preoccupied. Something has been beaten out of him since his birthday.
“I’m stressin’, man,” he says.
Butler holds the phone in his right hand and rests his right elbow on his knee. The swagger from his birthday has seeped out. He stares at the floor off to the right. He’s been in jail for more than a week, his lawyer still hasn’t come from Jefferson City, his bond is set at $50,000 — “high bond like we killed somebody”, he complains — and his mother’s request for a reduction in bail was rejected. His hearing is Nov. 6, another 29 days from now.
He claims he and Travis, who’s talking to their mother a few stools down, are innocent.
The brothers go to that gas station every day, he says, adding that he doesn’t even know Jeremy Burnett.
“If I actually did decide to rob that store,” he asks me, “Why would I go back to my house?”
He looks at me again.
“People at the park know us,” he says. “We love life … that’s not what we’re about.”
He stares at me with wide eyes. They aren’t red today, though they’re full of the same intensity they had on his birthday. The eyes are subdued now, dimmed by the burden of his situation. Butler says he never thought he’d be back in jail.
On Sept. 29, one week after Butler’s birthday and “Blues in the Park,” the event’s effect has faded into obscurity.
The park looks the same. Hip-hop music resounds from a filled pavilion. People sit on the parking lot curb and smoke.
There is tension in the atmosphere; I can sense it in the air, and see it in the darting glances and furtive stares.
As I walk past, the first three people I encounter — all young adult black males — confront me. The man in front asks me a series of questions: What I’m doing there? Am I looking for somebody? Do I need some “work”?
I hesitate long enough for him to think I’m not sure what he means, so he clarifies: marijuana. The skunky smell of the smoke travels from the parking lot to the pavilion and spills over onto the playground.
I decline, and he asks me again: What am I doing here? Stumped, I tell him about Albert Butler, that I’m writing about him. Butler wasn’t lying when he said he was a people person.
The man shrugs. “Yeah, he done for now,” he says. “He locked up.” He turns and walks toward the pavilion.
One month after her sons’ arrests, Margaret Butler sits on a loveseat in the living room of her home. Her grandchildren, 10-year-old Lamintez and 6-year-old Ramelus, sit on the floor with Styrofoam plates of cheese puffs and animal crackers, watching Cartoon Network.
To the right of the television set, about 20 Nike and Jordan shoeboxes are stacked in two columns towering almost two-thirds of the way to the ceiling.
Most of the boxes hold pairs of Nike Air Maxes in various models, all either size 11½ or 12, all belonging to Travis. For the past month, they have sat untouched.
“I wish I could fit them,” Margaret says.
Both Albert and Travis have seen jail time before, but nothing compared to the 15-year maximum sentence their second-degree robbery charges threaten.
“Oh, God,” says Margaret, whose brother is also in jail. “I’m thinkin’, ‘Oh, Lord, I can tell you right now Albert’s not going to handle the penitentiary.’ ”
She shakes her head a few times in silence. Margaret has had a tracheostomy since breathing and feeding tubes were left in too long during a medical procedure last March. It’s hard for her to breathe. Words won’t come to her. Travis hasn’t been in jail since 2002, when he was charged with drug solicitation.
Anguish creeps over Margaret’s face. Finally, she presses her index finger over the hole in her trachea and speaks again. “That boy will have a heart attack.”
She says she did a good job raising her children; she just wishes they’d stayed away from Douglass Park and some of the people who hang out there. She hasn’t gone to the park since shots were fired on Easter a few years ago when she was there with her grandchildren.
The possibilities are too much for her to bear.
“It wouldn’t really bother me if it was only one of them. But (since) it’s both of them, that’s a hard pill to swallow,” she says. “I never thought both my sons would be in jail.”
Facing The Facts
1:45 p.m., Nov. 6: Travis Butler sits alone in the back corner of a courtroom in the Boone County Courthouse. His hearing for second-degree robbery is in 15 minutes.
There’s a full docket, so he sits and waits. A friend shows up, and they joke and laugh quietly between hearings. In a way, Travis is lucky to be here. He bonded himself out of jail five days earlier.
At 2:20 p.m., a door behind the judge opens and seven inmates from Boone County Jail are led in.
Albert Butler is among them. He has been in solitary confinement since struggling against a guard when demanding privacy to use the restroom, Travis says. Since his incarceration, his hair has grown and his mustache has thickened. He looks a few years older, much more like a 31-year-old than he did at the park on his birthday. He squints out at the courtroom, looking for his brother.
Albert Butler is the last of the inmates to be heard. He walks up in black and white stripes, tan prison slippers, and handcuffs attached to a metal chain around his waist. “Boone County Jail” is printed in a reddish-orange arch on his back.
Moments after he faces the judge, recess is called and he’s led away.
Twenty minutes later, court resumes and Travis Butler is up. He saunters up to the podium. He’s wearing a gray zip-up hooded sweatshirt, dark Levi jeans belted below his waist, and a pair of blue and silver Air Maxes. Like Albert, Travis’ hearing is also rescheduled.
Outside the courtroom, Travis holds an unlit cigarette in his lips and talks of uncertainties — he’s not sure when his next hearing will be, nor does he know much about his brother’s situation; he has no way to contact Albert in solitary confinement.
It’s a tough place for Travis to be. He not only misses his older brother, he also misses his best friend.
“Where you see my brother, you see me,” he says. “That’s how it has always been.”
Seeking Out New Solutions
Albert’s older sister Stacy hesitates to talk about her brother. Her doubts converge in a pointed question for me:
“How is this going to help Albert?”
It’s a good question, one of many that have stumped the city of Columbia regarding Douglass Park and the surrounding neighborhood.
Albert Butler loves Douglass Park. Sam Brady hates crime. The Columbia Police Department wants to bridge this gap, but neither side is happy.
Butler wants to be left alone to enjoy the park his way, as long as he isn’t physically harming anyone. Brady, who quit smoking years ago for his family’s sake, wants all substances out. He doesn’t want them in front of children.
As Brady sees it, it’s all about changing mindsets, to help the Alberts of the park while they’re still young children, before they have moved from the playground to the pavilion picnic tables.
“If you got an 8-year-old kid that continues to go to the park and sees people smoke marijuana, don’t you think that kid is going to think that’s OK and he’s going to want to smoke it if the opportunity comes his way?” Brady asks.
Dec. 4: Travis Butler, dressed in a dark blue T-Shirt and his signature Air Maxes, sits on his porch, enjoying a rare 70-degree December afternoon. He smiles and waves as I pull up. One of his nephews carries around an empty squirt gun and a pop bottle full of water. Margaret takes a break from laundry to come out on to the porch.
Travis has heard from Albert. In a two-sided letter with impeccable handwriting, Albert writes he’s out of “the hole” and his next hearing will be on Dec. 18, the same day as Travis.
Meanwhile, Margaret plans to keep visiting Albert to see how he’s doing. She’s been trying to contact the newspapers to talk about Albert’s treatment in jail; she believes Albert couldn’t have done enough against the large guards to deserve solitary confinement.
She stands by her belief that she raised a good family. As Travis and I sort through old photos of Albert, she admits he can have a short fuse at times, but things can still be fixed.
“This story needs to be told,” she says.
Saturday, Dec. 8: Aside from three men in the pavilion, Douglass Park is empty on this cold morning.
Sam Brady walks across the parking lot to his equipment shed. He unlatches a padlock and steps inside among the buckets of baseballs, boxes of T-shirts and bags of helmets hanging on the walls.
Brady is done in Douglass Park until May, when his work with the baseball league picks up again, but his work in the community isn’t going to stop.
As part of his studies at Moberly Area Community College, where he’s completing a history degree, Brady is writing a paper about minority employment in Columbia.
He believes a major reason why drugs and alcohol remain at Douglass Park on a daily basis is minority unemployment in the community.
After entering more than 100 businesses downtown, Brady says he found, at most, one or two minority employees at a few businesses; more than 90 percent of the employees he saw were white.
He says job opportunities for minorities hold the key to what Columbia is missing.
“Someone gave me an opportunity, and look what I’ve done,” he says. “I’m getting ready to be a history teacher.”
Stepping out of the equipment shed, he points to a plot of grass with two gravel piles east of the parking lot. There are plans to build racquetball courts and install surveillance cameras. He’s excited to get things going again. Calls from parents wanting to sign up their kids for next summer’s baseball league are coming in already.
Brady loves Columbia, and he loves Douglass Park.
He’s certain of the answer.
“The park belongs to good, decent families that want to bring their kids and have a good time. Period,” he says. “And until we understand that and change those mindsets, we’re going to continue to see Douglass Park as a place people will be afraid to go to.”