Police Staffing Numbers Presents Public Safety Concern

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COLUMBIA - The Columbia Police will gain three additional positions in the 2014 city budget, but the increase might not be enough to meet standard staffing needs. The budget will add two patrol officers and one sergeant to the department.

Columbia Police Officers' Association (CPOA) Executive Director Dale Roberts said that conclusion is confusing." Technically, the sergeant will accommodate what the department refers to as a "over hire," someone who is in a sergeant's position when no such position exists. That won't necessarily add another person to the force as it has been explained to us. "

The goal that both the city and the CPOA seem to share is to get the Columbia Police Department in more of a proactive state, rather than a reactive. Columbia mayor Bob McDavid questions whether the department can live up to that goal at current staffing levels.

"The proactive policing is really compromised at that. That's why I think the city needs to ask itself 'How large a police department?' It could be better and it should be better," McDavid said.

There has been no date set to hire the additional officers. Roberts said, "If you want to cover one person on the street you need five employees, because it is a 24-hour job. So adding two people doesn't even cover one full slot."

The CPOA is also unhappy with the money taken out of the budget for public safety. The city council removed about $2 million from the proposed public safety budget. This budget will not, however, raise taxes, which was one of the main concerns for CPOA and residents.

One main concern for the city is that the department has been hitting a point called "Status Zero" more frequently. Status Zero is that point at which every patrol officer is on a call and no one is able to respond to anything else.

Roberts said this shortage is a serious problem about which he hears frequently from officers. "I got one on Monday of this week saying at about six in the evening that we are in Status Zero and there are only seven officers covering the entire city of Columbia--and there were about 16 to 18 911 calls waiting."

It takes about $100,000 to hire a new police officer and $80,000 every year after to keep one.

The city estimates almost $4 million to get the police department adequately staffed.

But funding presents an issue of where to find the money.

McDavid said, "We could do a property tax increase, but no one wants a property tax increase. We could do a sales tax increase, but no one wants a sales tax increase. But that's really what we are going to be confronted with."

The CPOA hopes to counter the city council's decision and see it back on the table in April.