COLUMBIA – People younger than 18 committed more than a quarter of all crime in Columbia last year, though they make up less than a fifth of the city’s population.
That has the attention of Mayor Darwin Hindman, Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser and the Columbia Police Department. They each highlighted the problem and several solutions at news conferences on Tuesday, including a citywide curfew and more officers on patrol in some parts of town.
“A disproportionate amount of crime is from youth,” Hindman said at a news conference he held with Nauser in the City Council chambers.
The Columbia Police Department held a separate news conference at its station following the mayor's.
Nauser raised the issue of a city curfew for people under 17 in 2008, but it has not gained much public support. She mentioned it again Tuesday.
“The ultimate goal is not to have a roomful of people who are against the curfew when it comes before the council again,” she said, adding that she plans to bring it up again when there's enough support for the idea.
Even if a curfew is established, it could take time to have an impact.
"Once kids know that they can’t be out, that’ll help,” Columbia Police Sgt. Lloyd Simons said.
A curfew ordinance was first proposed in 2001 by First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton. It was tabled after a door-to-door survey by the Columbia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said a curfew would be ineffective in reducing Columbia's juvenile crime.
Nauser first resurrected the idea in December 2008.
New Columbia Police Chief Kenneth Burton supports the idea of a curfew for people under 17, Deputy Chief Tom Dresner said. In Haltom City, Texas, near Dallas, where Burton was chief before taking over the job in Columbia in March, there was a daytime curfew during the school year. Burton said a similar curfew would be effective in Columbia, Dresner said.
The 2009 budget for the Columbia Police Department stands at about $19 million, up 4.4 percent from last year. However, the department has 1o open positions to add to its 156 officers.
“The most common complaint that I hear is that we need to have more police,” Hindman said.
The police department has applied for federal funds to hire more officers.
For now, Burton said, school resource officers would be moved back into the community on patrols for the summer.
“We have to remain fluid and move our resources around,” he said.
Dresner also talked about the effect of the new patrols downtown. Sgt. Chris Kelly said the department has received positive feedback from both visitors and merchants.
“We’re getting to know a lot of the people downtown, both friend and foe,” he said.
While northeast neighborhoods continue to have high crime rates, the police department has developed another strategy to prevent crime there – focusing on what it refers to as “hot spots.” These hot spots are neighborhoods that have experienced high crime rates, such as the Indian Hills and Derby Ridge areas, Hindman said.
In advising residents on how they can handle youth crime in their neighborhoods, Burton said: “Just because you see three kids standing on a corner doesn’t indicate a crime problem." But when there are "three kids that are starting to get out of hand, or are out late at night or something like that … I would call.”