Columbia Police Dept. Having Hard Time Filling Vacancies

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COLUMBIA - The City of Columbia recently approved funding for the police department to hire three more officers, bringing the total number of officers to 163. But, Chief Ken Burton said the city needs 30 more officers, not three, to meet the needs of the city's growing population.

In the past 10 years, Columbia's population has grown from 88,328 people to 113,225, that's a nearly 23 percent increase. In that same time, the police department's force grew 15 percent from 136 officers to 160.

Burton said the three extra officers will be helpful, if the department can find people to fill those positions. He said the department is having a hard time attracting citizens to don the golden badge. Currently the department has 12 positions to fill, not including the three new positions it will add in 2014.

There are some newcomers on their way to the department though. Right now, there are four CPD recruits going through training at MU's Law Enforcement Training Institute. Heath Green is one of them.

"After seeing everybody in uniform and all of them at the station, it's a great group of people to work with," Green said. "It's a great town, it's a growing town, it's got a lot of potential."

The police department will promote Green and the three other recruits to officers after they graduate. But once they're on the street, the department still needs eight more people in uniform to fill its ranks.

"It's just not as attractive a profession as it was several years ago," Burton said.

To fight that, Burton said his department is recruiting more aggressively.

"We've not really had to recruit in the past. If you look at news releases now, you'll see that there are many departments struggling with hiring officers," he said. "What we have planned is to have our training staff visit the academies within the state and even get outside of the state."

Burton said one problem is many of the applicants the department gets aren't qualified.

"Probably 30 percent to 35 percent are eliminated before they ever get to the interview," he said.

"To be an eligible applicant at CPD, you have to have 60 college credit hours, you have to be able to become post certified through the state of Missouri, you have to pass a written test and pass an oral interview board," said Sergeant Chad Craig.

Craig serves on the Training and Recruiting Unit and said the department is looking to lower those requirements to bring in more recruits.

"Seeing the feasibility of allowing military and prior law enforcement to offset college requirements," he said.

So, military and law enforcement experience could take the place of 30 college credits. The chief said he's on board with the idea.

"We were hesitant to reduce the education requirements, and when we started looking at it if someones been in the military they've been through training that's similar to policing just in their basic training," Burton said.

Director of MU's Law Enforcement Training Institute and former CPD officer, John Worder, agrees.

"I don't know that you need a bachelor's degree to be a great police officer. Police work is a lot about being able to read people, understand their actions, understand your own reactions to what they're doing. You can't learn that in a book," Worden said.

Burton said he thinks the paycheck is another deterrent.

"Somebody coming out of college with a degree can make more money doing something else, that's just the simple reality," he said.

Right now, the starting annual salary for a Columbia officer is $40,784. The city recently increased it from $38,644. The new starting salary is comparable to similar cities in the Midwest. Officers in Fayetteville, Ark., start at $33,306 and Iowa City, Iowa, officers start at $41,828.

"Found that we're competitive within the midwest, we're paying what everybody else is paying," Burton said.

So, the obvious challenge, attract citizens not only to the profession, but the city as well. Still, there are those who don't need to be enticed, like Green.

"If you like helping people, it's more than shooting guns and chasing bad guys down, but helping the community out, make sure it's a safe place," Green said. "Just want to be here and do the best that I can."

The department is also facing a 20-year turnover mark; a lot of officers have retired or will be in the coming months. That's leading to more vacancies and an overall younger force.