Columbia police hope new ATVs help with public interaction

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COLUMBIA - The Columbia Police Department said it may have found a way to improve its interaction with residents and visitors in the District.

The department purchased two John Deere Gators last March for its Downtown Unit, which patrols the downtown area and neighboring East Campus.

CPD said its officers need to serve as ambassadors for the city and the all-terrain vehicles are just another way to fulfill that goal.

"We're a little bit more approachable and decrease the barrier so that we can be ambassadors for the downtown district," said Downtown Unit Supervisor Sergeant Chad Gooch. "We look forward to meeting the public and interacting with them on a positive note. We think that this helps."

Betty Pangborn, who has lived in Columbia since the 1960s, said she disagrees with the approach.

"I can't see where it's going to relieve the barriers between the residents and the police officers," she said. "The people that I hear talking want more interaction with the police and being able to see them, not them riding up and down the street in a vehicle or in an expensive piece of equipment."

Gooch said he believes that the ATVs will help make people more comfortable around law enforcement in the area.

"A detriment to using a standard patrol vehicle is that there is that barrier between the officer and the public," he said. "It's one benefit of utilizing these. I think people will feel more comfortable making contact with us."

Residents and visitors shouldn't be alarmed if they see these all-terrain vehicles driving down Broadway or College Avenue.

The green-painted four wheelers adorned with the typical police lights and sirens are fast - with a maximum speed of more than 40 miles-per-hour.

Officer Andrew Arnold said he and others operating the vehicles still have the authority to hand out tickets. He said, however, motorists don't always see the lights, because the ATVs are smaller than a typical patrol car.

CPD said downtown visitors will still see bike and foot patrol, in addition to the ATVs. 

The purchase of the vehicles has brought up questions about CPD's spending over the past two years.

Gooch said the department was able to buy the ATVs through grants and other funds.

"The majority of the funds came through utilization of grant funds and also with the addition of the Community Improvement District."

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp, who opposed the department's purchase of the armored vehicle BearCat last year, was okay with the spending on this project.

"I think the gator compares favorably to a police car as far as accessibility and being open to community interaction," Trapp said. "The police want to have as many options as they can to deal with as many different tactical situations."

Gooch said there's no plan yet for using the ATVs in inclement weather.

"It's a piece of equipment we want to use as much as we can, but obviously we can utilize it when it's feasible and when it's safe to do."