Senate committee hears bill aimed at funding police officers

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JEFFERSON CITY- State senators heard testimony on a bill Thursday morning that could give law enforcement a leg up in addressing staffing levels throughout the state.

The bill, which was filed by State Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia establishes a grant program that would help pay for the hiring of new officers in qualifying departments. Departments would apply for the grant from the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

To qualify, police departments need to have fewer than two officers for every 1,000 citizens they serve. The city also needs to be have a population between 75,000 and 125,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018 Columbia’s population was estimated to be about 123,000.

The Department of Justice's recommendation for staffing levels for law enforcement agencies is 2.5 officers for every 1,000 residents. For years, the Columbia Police Department has been well bellow that mark. With a current staff of 174 officers, the department is 134 officers short of that standard.

"The idea is to get more officers on the streets and help them to be more proactive in addressing the crime issues we have seen throughout the state," Rowden said.

The bill is similar to one Rowden introduced when he was in the Missouri House of Representatives in 2016.

"It was more of a localized issue to Columbia at that time," he said. "Now we have seen other cities fall into this category and so obviously there is a focus on the violent crime around many areas in the state."

Rowden and Columbia Police Officers Association Executive Director Dale Roberts both testified before the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety committee Thursday morning. Rowden said there are about five other cities throughout the state that would qualify. Among them are O'Fallon, Independence, and Lee's Summit.

"There is a number of cities that fall into that category of being big enough where they are seeing a lot of these crime issues percolate and perk up in a more substantive manor, but maybe not big enough locally that they have the full assortment of resources," he said. "The aim of the program is. To provide some state resources to help bridge the gap."

Roberts said Senator Rowden's bill is not the sole answer to Columbia's problems, but it is a good start.

"It would be a good bill for us and a lot of agencies throughout Missouri," Roberts said. "That really helps an agency or a municipality get started on increasing their officer staffing so the community can do some crime prevention."

When departments like Columbia don't have enough officers, Roberts said officers are forced into a reactive mode rather than trying to proactively prevent crime.

"If every officer on duty is already involved in a call and there is no one available to take the next call," he said. "Our officers are so busy reacting to crime that it is hard to devote much in the way of time and resources to preventing crime and that gets to be a vicious cycle."

Thursday's hearing was just the first step for the bill, but Senator Rowden said he is confident lawmakers can get it across the finish line this legislative session.

"Anytime you are trying to secure resources for a smaller number of cities around the country or the state, you are always going to have some pushback there," Towden said. "But we have a good start and I think we are going to get it done."