TARGET 8: Police shortage concerns home security customers
COLUMBIA - For customers of home security services, peace of mind comes in monthly payments.
Dan Sitar, a Columbia resident of nearly 30 years, said he pays for home security services so he knows his home is safe while he’s not around.
“I’ve got animals in the house,” Sitar said. “And I wanted to be sure if there was a fire or something that happened while I was gone, somebody would come.”
For between 30 to 90 dollars a month, Columbia homeowners can equip their home with all sorts of tech gadgets, programmed to call for help if an emergency arises.
But motion-sensors, door-monitoring magnets and high-power sirens are not nearly as effective if officers cannot respond to a distress call in a timely manner.
Police call it, “status zero.”
“Status zero is when we have all of our patrol officers responding to calls,” Bryana Larimer, spokesperson for the Columbia Police Department, said. “They are all on calls, and there are calls waiting.”
Larimer said status zero is a present reality that Columbia police officers have to work against.
“Our officers are stretched,” Larimer said. “They’re working about as diligently as they can.”
Larimer said the Columbia Police Department is understaffed, and has been for years. When there are more calls coming in than officers in the field, that means people will have to wait to get help.
Home security companies get big bucks for promising to quickly alert authorities if there is an emergency. But police say they do not have enough officers to answer every call in a timely manner.
When a 9-1-1 call comes in, Boone County Joint Communications uses a triage system to prioritize the calls by the level of urgency. A phone dispatcher will ask the caller a series of questions to determine the urgency of the situation. In general, home security alarms are categorized as "priority 2," on a scale with "priority 1" being the highest priority. Priority 1 emergencies can include situations like a robbery in progress, assault in progress or a hostage situation.
But police are struggling to even give priority 1 calls the attention they deserve. Last September, a KOMU 8 News reporter went on a ride along with Columbia Police Officers Matt Rodriguez and Kyle Gilliam. During the ride along, the two officers were dispatched to a senior living center in the north part of the city. A 69-year-old woman accused her caretaker of laundering more than $1,000 from her bank account. The elderly woman's 911 call, however, was made eight hours prior.
Regardless of this call's priority, eight hours is far too long to wait in any emergency. So what are you paying for? How can home security companies charge for "protection" if there is no guarantee help will arrive in time?
KOMU 8 News reached out to several local home security companies to talk about this issue, but no one replied.
Larimer said the police department has been trying to get more money to hire more officers, starting with a proposed a tax increase back in 2014.
“Our chief had asked for about 50 new officers, to bring us up to par with the national average of officers per 1000 residents,” Larimer said. “When that wasn’t approved, we had to operate as efficiently as we could.”
Since then, the number of sworn officers has dropped even further. Since 2014, the department lost 7 more officers, widening the deficit to 57 officers below the national average or goal. Larimer said the department has employed several tactics to try and make up for short-staffing.
For the past several years, the Columbia Police Department has been in the process of creating more civilian positions. These civilian employees are responsible for handling certain responsibilities that do not need a sworn officer. These Community Service Aides (CSA’s) handle duties like parking enforcement and minor traffic accidents.
More recently, however, the department has started to re-purpose sworn officers.
Larimer said several months ago, the police department began pulling officers from traffic duty and re-assigning them to respond to calls.
“They are focusing on trying to create as many patrol officers as they can,” Larimer said.
To free up even more officers, the police department abandoned the practice of requiring two officers per patrol car.
Larimer said the police department prefered to use two-man units because it was safer for the officers. However a matrix study proved the “safe” method came at a cost because it meant the department could not respond to as many calls at once.
“We were not efficient at operating at two-man units with our response time,” Larimer said. “In some cases it was actually increasing our response time.”
Larimer said the department made all these changes to make sure officers were able to respond to calls as fast as possible. She said ideally, patrol officers would be able to split their time into handling their three duties: responding to calls, patrolling the community and filing reports.
“A lot of the focus is trying to get our patrol units to where they can work in thirds," Larimer said. "And so, one third of their time is spent handling calls. Another third of their time is spent doing pro-active policing, and a third of their time doing administrative work such as filing reports and things like that.”
The Columbia City Council has also made an effort to improve police department efficiency. In January, the city council approved a plan to build a second police station. However, as the plan currently stands, it does not include hiring any additional officers, it would just create a new station on the north side of town.
Even after all these changes, Larimer said police administration still has another idea it wants to try.
“We are making some changes come February 28th, that will change shift times, that will increase the amount of officers we have on a day shift,” Larimer said.
At this point in time, it is too early to tell if the changes are making a real difference.