Police keep eye on Westboro Baptist Church demonstrations

Police officers didn't want to add to the scene.
A Columbia Police Department vehicle drives by protests from the Westboro Baptist church and counter-protests from Columbia residents Friday on the corner of University and College avenues. Specific officers were assigned to patrol the area and keep a watchful eye.

As members of the Westboro Baptist Church took to the streets of Columbia with signs from head to toe, local law enforcement was keeping a much lower profile.

Although officers kept their visibility limited at the hate group's demonstration sites, Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jessie Haden said CPD was ready to intervene at any time.

"We wanted to remain in the background but also be very ready in case it looked like something was going to happen," Haden said. "If anything had gotten ugly, we would've been out there to control it in a second."

In order to maintain this degree of concealed watchfulness, Haden said a significant number of officers were assigned to the demonstration detail. Although some of these officers were positioned in marked vehicles around the demonstration sites, others were in various locations nearby.

The church's trip around Columbia included stops outside of Hickman High School, Macklanburg Playhouse at Stephens College, the Mizzou Hillel and Congregation Beth Shalom. The scene outside of the high school was the most eventful of the day, Haden said.

"Some of the students leaving the school were being very vocal with the protesters," Haden said. "We monitored the situation and didn't have to intervene."

Haden attributes some of the students' antics to the large media presence at the high school. Each site on the Church's tour around Columbia garnered media attention in the form of television cameras and hordes of reporters from local news outlets.

"We're all familiar with the phenomenon that people become more animated when there's a camera around," Haden said.

A similar phenomenon also contributed to the police's decision to keep a low profile. Haden said when police are visible onlookers tend to act up.

"We didn't want to add to the show and add to making it a circus atmosphere," Haden said. "We wanted to maintain a low profile to encourage others to do the same."

The demonstrators said they appreciated the efforts of CPD as well.

"They've had a presence here the entire time," picketer Joshua Phelps said. "We try not to depend too much on (the police) but obviously that's a presence that has been put there by the Lord, our God."

Demonstrators from WBC said they haven't always had positive experiences with local police.

"Sometimes (police) let their own views and their own emotions seep out," Phelps said. "Whether it's by saying some words or by doing a poor job protecting us, that's how they show their disagreement."

That type of behavior was not a concern for Haden, who said CPD knows how to act in a professional manner.

"We know that our job is to keep the peace," she said. "Regardless of personal views, when we come to work and put the uniform on, we have to live up to that."

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