COLUMBIA — When new Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton finished talking at City Council's annual retreat last weekend about the future of the police department, council members and city staff applauded. His was the only presentation that drew such a response.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe approached Burton afterward and thanked him. “That was inspiring for us and encouraging,” Hoppe said. “If I were younger, I’d join the police force.”
The council's retreat was Burton's first true test in front of city government, and the response was positive. The reaction was partly due to how much council members have been hearing from their constituents about crime in Columbia and appreciation for the new police chief's plans to address community fears. But they also liked that Burton backed up his vision for the city with statistics and that his plan, which includes changes in police distribution, traffic enforcement, internal communications and technology, is comprehensive.
What seemed to impress council members and staff most was Burton's emphasis on geographic policing, a strategy that focuses police officers on high-crime areas. Currently, the department uses a beat model, which distributes officers more evenly throughout the city.
Burton also talked about how geographic policing will strengthen the bond between the police and the community because officers will be asked to approach citizens under ordinary circumstances to introduce themselves, making them more visible and approachable in neighborhoods.
He said the best remedy for citizens' growing fears about crime in Columbia is for police officers to sit down with people in their neighborhoods and talk to them.
“I think what we will find is that if you ask a room of people how many have actually been a victim of a crime, then only one or two will raise their hands," Burton said.
Along with improving public relations, Burton plans to update the police department’s manual of policies and procedures; add additional equipment for the bicycle unit; replace the department’s motorcycles with newer models; and promote some officers to the staff, including two lieutenants and two sergeants.
Burton also suggested to the council the possibility of adding six to 10 officers to the traffic unit, tripling its size. He said that the unit's two officers now write about 10 citations a day. A unit of six officers could write three an hour, so the new positions would essentially pay for themselves in revenue from citations.
With more officers enforcing traffic laws, drivers will be more cautious about bad driving behavior, he said.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala remarked, “Well, you convinced me that I’m going to slow down.”
Although Burton impressed the council last weekend, Hoppe admitted that her first impression of Burton when he was a police chief candidate was not as positive.
She first saw him alongside the three other candidates at the Activity and Recreation Center in January and said she had him pegged as a certain kind of person.
“He looked like sort of a burly, kinda tough, old-world kinda guy, and I thought he might not have any good new ideas and he might not be the right one,” Hoppe said.
She said her opinion changed after speaking with him that evening. She found he was "very decisive but open-minded at the same time."
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill met Burton after he was selected for the chief's job.
“He appeared to be somebody that was genuinely listening to what I was saying," Thornhill said, "as opposed to just kind of being there for the conversation.”
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz was enthusiastic about Burton "from the get-go." Sturtz liked what he heard from Burton's presentation. "He said all the right things. I think everyone on the council is very impressed with him," he said.
Sturtz especially liked the emphasis on building a relationship between residents and police before there is a problem, “so that when you do swoop into the neighborhood because of a crisis, you have resources at your disposal.”
“He’s talking about making more people walk around on their beats,” Sturtz said, “and that, in the long run, is going to pay off in big dividends.”