Target 8: Columbia Police substations cause confusion in high crime area

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COLUMBIA - Faith Mejia's children know to drop to the ground whenever they hear gunshots. In 2019 alone, three homicides happened about a block away from their home.

"My son was riding his bike just playing with his friend across the street and shots rang out," Mejia said. "My son's best friend was gunned down last year [2018] and, unfortunately, didn't make it."

She's used to police searching her backyard for casings and said the police shouldn't have to travel far. The Columbia Police Department's substation across from McKee Street Park sits less than a mile away. 

The substation is located at 4507-A Orchard Lane. It's one side of a duplex across from McKee Street Park. According to a council memo, the substation costs $400 a month, plus electric and gas. It's 1 of 5 substations in Columbia.

The substation's original purpose was to house a Community Outreach Unit, according to a council memo. However, Columbia Police ended the community outreach unit, merging it with its downtown unit to make one community resource unit.

Steve Sapp, the Director of Community Relations for the city of Columbia, said the substation's purpose is to allow officers to complete paperwork, use the bathroom and a place to meet residents while staying in their assigned beat. However, people around the McKee Street substation were unaware of its new purpose. 

Community members, like Faith Mejia, complained to Target 8 about the lack of a police presence at the substation since the elimination. In our Target 8 investigation, we recorded activity for over six hours at the substation across different time intervals over the course of a weekend in October 2018. 

Our camera would sometimes run out of space or battery before a police officer drove across the substation. Overall, Target 8 found the lack of a constant police presence at the substation. 

The substation near McKee Street Park is in 3rd Ward, which is represented by councilman Karl Skala. Target 8 showed him some of our video and he wasn't surprised with the lack of police presence. He said he believes it's a consequence of resource shortages for the police department. 

"There has been no resource increase, in terms of police, which we're going to have to get to," Skala said.

However, the Columbia Police Department said the lack of a constant police presence is not because a lack of resources or staff shortage. Sapp said the expectation of a constant police presence at the substation is a misunderstanding. 

"I suspect a lot of people think about them as a precinct house," he said. "But we should certainly should explore ways to make sure residents understand that. Perhaps, on our website we need to do a better job explaining it."

Sapp said the substations allow police officers to stay on patrol in their assigned beats as well as use the bathroom, work on paperwork and meet people. 

Faith Mejia believes the sense of a constant police presence, however, is needed.

"I don’t really see them there in the significant times that crime tends to happen," she said. "I feel like if there was an officer there or just a car parked, a lot of these things might not happen. I mean, who's going to drive down the street and kill somebody."

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