COLUMBIA — Almost three months after the sexual assault and robbery of one hotel clerk and the shooting death of another, none of Columbia’s 30 hotels have become fully certified by a free safety program available through a division of the Columbia Police Department.
Time and money are two obstacles: To receive full certification, hotels must complete a three-phase program that can take months to complete, depending on the number of deficiencies identified by a police inspection. After that, there’s the time it takes to correct the problems and re-inspect the hotel.
And then there’s the money: While the evaluations are free, making changes and improvements can be costly for the hotel, or it may be prohibited by a hotel chain’s corporate policies.
But Officer Tim Thomason, the program’s coordinator, said perhaps the No. 1 reason that hotels do not complete the full program is that Columbia’s hotels are relatively safe.
“We’ve been lucky in that our hotels haven’t been victim to serious crime until lately,” he said. “Until we’re affected, we don’t move forward.”
A week after the shooting death of Cynthia T. White, 55, at the Comfort Inn on Clark Lane, Thomason facilitated a meeting of hotel managers and stressed the importance of making specific changes. At the top of the list were surveillance cameras, which were critical in the arrest of a suspect in connection with White’s killing and an earlier burglary at the Hampton Inn.
Even though the Comfort Inn did not have surveillance cameras, a connection between the two cases was established, and footage from the burglary at the Hampton Inn was instrumental in the arrest of a suspect in the Comfort Inn shooting.
Dwight T. Hayes was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the death of White, as well as additional charges in an earlier sexual assault and robbery of a clerk at the same hotel. He was also charged in connection with the Hampton Inn burglary.
“(Security cameras) are certainly excellent deterrents,” Thomason said. “Options that are out there help us investigate cases after the fact, but they’re not the save-all. They have to be included with a comprehensive security plan.”
The program was developed by the International Crime Free Organization in 1992 in Mesa, Ariz. It focuses on preventing crime at hotels by creating a partnership between hotel and motel management and law enforcement. The Crime Prevention Unit of the Columbia Police Department adopted the program about 10 years ago.
Thomason said that several years ago, a number of hotels were interested in being fully certified. Recently, “it’s just been that a hotel wants more specific information on one specific thing,” he said.
Many hotels are asking police to help them target specific areas, such as surveillance, lighting or landscaping, Thomason said. That approach can be effective in maintaining hotel security.
“Any little bit that can be done to improve safety and security is a plus,” he said. “But one measure is never going to be the cure-all.”
Thomason said that corporate policies often stop hotel general managers from being able to fully comply with this program.
“Some corporate policies don’t really allow hotels to make adjustments to their property because they are built to corporate standards,” he said. “Others are under the impression that there may be more liability if the deficiencies are located, and they don’t take any action or take action fast enough.”
The three-phase program begins with a four-hour training session, held several times each year in Columbia. During the session, hotel managers learn about how to make their hotels safer, including cutting down bushes or changing the placement of lights.
The second stage involves a property assessment, Thomason said. He visits hotels and makes recommendations for improving safety and security.
The third stage is certification, and that occurs after hotels have made at least a minimum number of the changes recommended in the second stage, in addition to providing brochures and other informative materials to guests.
It’s this third step that Columbia hotels aren’t taking.
“There just haven’t been requests for the comprehensive evaluation,” Thomason said.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said he thinks financial considerations play into hotels’ reluctance to complete the program.
“Like everyone, if you’re in business, you’re trying to balance your customer service with your crime prevention, and deciding where you draw that line,” he said. “In the end, we make a number of suggestions and they have to make a business decision as to what’s best for them.”
Mike Ebert, general manager and co-owner of The Regency Hotel on Broadway, attended the four-hour training session about six months ago. He said he participated in the first two phases of this program, in addition to having both the Columbia Police Department and Columbia Fire Department make recommendations about hotel safety.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” Ebert said. “We can replace buildings, but we can’t replace lives.”
He said that the hotel has one panic button, installed in 2005, that helps employees to feel safer while at work, although hotel employees have never used the panic button in an actual emergency.
But after participating in the program, he decided the hotel needed security cameras and is working with police on other changes.
Ted Berryhill, general manager of Columbia’s Day’s Inn on I-70 Drive Southwest, said his hotel completed the first phase of the program about two months ago, after Thomason gave a presentation at the Stoney Creek Inn on Providence Road — immediately following White’s death.
“We have increased security in our hotels,” Berryhill said. “We’re more careful of who we rent to.”
Since the training session, Berryhill has implemented many of Thomason’s suggestions, which included adding extra surveillance cameras, making sure every door is properly secured and training his employees to become more aware of their surroundings.
In addition to implementing these changes, Berryhill said his prior experience as the manager of Allied Security Company helps to ensure his hotel is safe and secure.
He plans on completing the final phase of the program, but has not determined how soon.
“We’re in pretty good shape.” Berryhill said.
The usual suspects
In each of the last four years, an average of 166 separate hotel crimes were reported to Columbia police. The total number of crimes in Columbia hotels went down last year, but the number of violent crimes increased.
Stealing is still the most prevalent, averaging 41 reports each year.
White’s shooting death was the first such crime in a hotel since 2004.
“By and large, hotels are safe for tourists,” said Lorah Steiner, director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Recent events have absolutely made everyone take a closer look. I think that’s very important.”
Steiner said she thinks that in addition to using cameras as deterrents, training hotel staff is key.
That’s why the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsored Nancy Hightshoe’s appearance in Columbia on Feb. 12. Hightshoe, a former St. Louis County Police officer, gave a presentation titled “Out of Harm’s Way” at the Holiday Inn Select in Columbia.
In her presentation, Hightshoe stressed the importance of thinking “like a cop.”
The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau will hold a regional training seminar for hotel general managers from Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis on May 8.
“It’s important to take more control,” Steiner said. ”It’s not just making the police do it.”
Jessica Malnik contributed
to this story.