New Columbia crime report calls for more police, tax raise

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COLUMBIA - City Manager Mike Matthes is scheduled to present the city council a report titled “Crime Reduction Strategy” Monday night during the council's meeting

Matthes' office worked with the Columbia Police Department on the report to provide a “comprehensive strategy” that could help reduce crimes, according to Steven Sapp, the city’s community relations director.

Sapp said the report was compiled at the request of Mayor Brian Treece at a council meeting last December, after the city saw a spike in homicide rates - nine victims in total in 2017 tying with 2000 as the year with the most homicides in 20 years. 

Treece said at the meeting, “I don’t know what the solution is, but I need to know that everybody’s head is in the game and working on these issues until we get on top of it.” 

The report includes a summary of Columbia’s crime data from the past two decades, updates on how current CPD programs are doing, and a list of suggestions that could help make Columbia a safer place.

It says the city will spend more than $45 million over the next two years to deliver the comprehensive strategy, which will cost around $23 million every year following. 

Sapp said $45 million is by no means a “precise number,” as the council will evaluate the suggestions.

There are eight suggestions listed on the report: 

1) ShotSpotter technology: It’s a system that listens for shots fired so officers can respond instantly before a 911 call. However, the technology is “expensive," according to the report. It would cost $300,000 to install equipment and another $200,000 in annual license fees.

2) A curfew for children: The report says the curfew aims to “keep children away from dangerous activity at night, given that much property crime is committed by underage boys, this might also result in a reduction in property crimes.” 

3) A video sharing database: It would allow residents and businesses to share video evidence taken in public spaces.

4) Mobile surveillance systems for high crime areas or hotspots. 

5) A fusion center with three crime analysts: The analysts would push out real time crime information to CPD staff and help allocate resources.

6) An alarm ordinance: It would reduce false alarms across the city that take up officers' time.

7) Online reporting for certain non-emergency crimes: It would encourage residents to use the ColumbiaPD app for reports that don’t require the physical presence of officers, such as accidents, shoplifting and vandalism.  

8) Hiring more police officers: The report says this is “a very well-known need,” as the police workload continues to grow with cases like opioid death investigations.

Columbia resident Don Love has a longtime personal interest in studying discrimination by law enforcement. He used to chair the Human Rights Task Force for Empower Missouri. He has read the report and said, “I haven’t seen such a clear summary of what those were before.”

Love said he has doubts about some of the suggestions.

“Things like curfew for young people? I don’t know - maybe that’s important. My guess is it’s not so important,” he said. “They want more cameras, video, and I’m concerned about the civil liberties violations with that.”

Love said while he doesn’t favor many of the suggestions, he has always endorsed the existing community-oriented programs, which are also sketched out in the report.

It mentions the progress CPD has made through these programs, such as the Community Outreach Unit, School Resource Officers, and the AVERT (Alliance of Violence Education Reform Transformation) program, which was formed in 2017 to identify “the most violent, problem offenders in the community” and assist them in employment, education and housing. 

Love said the community programs are going to be the “main things that make a difference” in reducing crimes.

“If you alienate the members of the community, they won’t tell you who the bad guys are, because they see the officers as the bad guys,” he said. 

However, Love said he knows with CPD’s understaffing problem, the community policing philosophy could face challenges.

“So, even doing normal policing, they are stretched pretty thin. And if they want to assign people to do more community contacts, it’s gonna be difficult for them,” he said.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said among the eight solutions, adding more police officers would be the “most valuable” one, and yet the most expensive.

“That’s $100,000 of budget funds to add an officer position, but it’s $6 million in one time funds to add an officer. Because you’d have to have police cars for them for 20 years; you have the salaries and benefits for 20 years, and then you have their retirement costs over time,” he said.

Trapp said the city has been “shifting priorities” in order to get work done with limited resources and will continue to do so, but a tax increase is likely to be proposed.

“We do not have enough funds to operate in a way that the community would like,” he said.

After studying Columbia's police culture for years, Love said the lack of officers and funding can be the city's biggest barrier moving forward.

“There’re lots of things they can do without more tax money. But they are doing those already, and we are beginning to see the positive effects from it. But to really nail it, more officers would be a big help,” he said.

According to Trapp, this report is “a prelude” to another report that’s coming out around August, with more details on how much resource the city needs.

“And then the community would be able to make an informed decision,” he said. “Are we happy with the status quo with the understaffed police department where we struggle to just answer 911 calls and can’t even fulfill all of our community policing obligations? Or would we like to have officers who have better pay, higher morale and hire enough officers to be able to have a timely response time?”

Sapp said he hopes this report would spur some conversation in the community. 

“So, somebody that doesn’t really know or hasn’t been maybe paying attention to what’s going on. We’re all busy. So, this report kind of gives them a good synopsis to kind of catch up on things, and then start thinking about and communicating either with their elected representative or their neighbors or so forth,” he said.