COLUMBIA — Downtown was out of control after the final Missouri-Kansas basketball game March 6. The bars were packed, many revelers were drunk, and police had their hands full with fights. Even a hot dog vendor took a punch as a drunken patron stumbled onto the sidewalk outside of Quinton’s Bar & Deli on Ninth Street.
It was the first time since the downtown patrol was established in May 2009 that officers needed to call for backup.
“As it gets warmer — and recently because we’re short-staffed — we can’t handle all the incidents by ourselves," Sgt. Chris Kelley said.
The downtown patrol generally deals with fights, mostly caused by people drinking too much.
“I think a lot of assaults we’ve had wouldn’t have happened if people weren’t overly intoxicated,” downtown patrol Officer Eric Hughes said.
That's why the Columbia Police Department is trying to stop people from being over-served in downtown bars. The equation is simple: Less drunkenness means fewer assaults. Fewer assaults makes downtown safer. It's part of "problem-oriented policing," an approach implemented by Police Chief Ken Burton.
“Through problem-oriented policing, we’ve worked as a team to identify problems in the downtown area,” Kelley said.
Burton explained the policy as a multifaceted approach that takes community input into consideration when addressing the concerns of each region of the city.
“It’s a new solution to solve problems long-term to avoid repeat arrests,” Burton said.
Before the downtown patrol was created, fights and disorderly conduct downtown overwhelmed police. The altercations forced many officers away from their regular beats.
“On weekends between 1 and 2 a.m., there were large disturbances exhausting all police resources, so the quality of life for other parts of the city were affected,” Kelley said.
The downtown patrol has a partner in Columbia’s Special Business District, which represents downtown property owners. Its goal is to protect those businesses and serve their needs. The District shares its Tenth Street office with the downtown patrol.
“From our perspective, it’s about getting the message out there that there’s police all over the place, and they’re going to intervene when stuff happens,” said Mary Wilkerson, Special Business District Board chairwoman.
Wilkerson credits the patrol with making downtown safer. She said there's been a decrease in many of the crimes businesses previously dealt with, such as assaults and drinking by minors.
Statistics examined by the Missourian during the recent municipal elections showed downtown arrests were up in 2009 — the result of police "self-initiating" 45 percent more calls in the area in 2009. In other words, they were present, saw crimes and responded to them without being dispatched through 911.
Burton said the Special Business District deserves part of the credit for the patrol's success because it has helped police address problems they hadn’t considered, such as panhandling.
“We have a good handle on what business owners are concerned about,” he said.
Chris Flood, manager at Campus Bar & Grill on Ninth Street, said at first the police presence was a little unsettling to customers who worried cops entering the bar meant something was wrong.
"That kind of thing was not necessarily good for business, but (police) made the necessary adjustments," Flood said.
To be less disruptive, the police have started wearing plain clothes more often during their bar checks. Being undercover allows police to see what they might miss in uniform, Kelley said, and makes customers feel more at ease.
There has been some evidence of success. A survey conducted by the Wellness Resource Center shows the number of minors able to get into downtown bars and be served has decreased. Kim Dude, directer of the Wellness Resource Center, said the lower numbers are correlated with the increased presence of police downtown.
“I think there’s little doubt that it has a lot to do with their role downtown,” Dude said.
Some students aren't happy with the increased policing, Dude said, based on her conversations with them. But, she said: “The purpose of the enforcement isn’t to make people happy; it’s to make people safe.”
Not all intoxicated people in bars are minors, though, so the downtown patrol isn't just focusing on them. They're also paying attention to drink specials, which draw the biggest crowds, enable the most intense drinking and spark the worst fights.
It's obvious when Kelley walks into a bar that he's become a kind of regular. He chit-chats with bartenders, bouncers and bar managers. He follows up on problems from the night before. But some of it is just shooting the breeze.
“The chief wanted bar owners to know what color eyes supervisors have,” Kelley said.
The relationships between the officers and the bar management provide feedback on what problems need to be dealt with. And officers are encouraged to take that feedback and find creative solutions for repeat problems.
“This is the first job I’ve had as an officer that I take home,” Hughes said. “I lay in bed and think of more possible solutions.”