Downtown Columbia becomes safer with 'problem-oriented policing,' police say

Friday, April 16, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:53 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 16, 2010
Sgt. Chris Kelley of the Columbia Police Department talks with a patron of Generic Nightclub on March 11. Kelley is one of the downtown patrol now wearing a small video camera clipped onto his shirt front during patrol hours, which functions as another set of eyes and provides further evidence if any altercations occur.

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.


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“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.”

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Ray Shapiro April 16, 2010 | 12:24 a.m.

If the bars are over-serving and police resources are being tied up on drinking related problems downtown, maybe it's time to consider having a "dry" downtown.
"The District" just seems to be getting way to much "special" attention. Especially regarding the students and liquor.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 16, 2010 | 6:09 a.m.

You're kidding, aren't you, Ray? I suspect over half of the revenue generated by downtown is generated at bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. I can't imagine the city cutting off a source of tax revenue like that.

It's the same reason that nothing really gets done about underage drinking - their money spends just as well as an over-21 patron. And they spend a fair amount of it.


(Report Comment)
Mark Flakne April 16, 2010 | 7:01 a.m.

"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."

Wait... before the election the SBD was crying about how crime Downtown was out of control. I guess they had to convince everyone that the cameras were a good idea so their candidates, McDavid, Dudly, and Kespohl could ride the issue to a victory. As soon as that goal was accomplished, the truth comes out.

@Ray: A "dry" downtown. Get real. The bar business would simply migrate somewhere else. If you don't like bars, perhaps you shouldn't have set up camp in a college town.

(Report Comment)
Cindy Dickson April 16, 2010 | 11:03 a.m.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of information-seeking checkpoints in Illinois v. Lister (2004). With regard to the Fourth Amendment protections, these stops require that:
The crime about which information is sought must be serious.

Checkpoints must be narrowly tailored (location, time of day, and duration) to the investigative purpose.

All checkpoint stops must be brief and systematic; arbitrary stops are unconstitutional.

Officers may not stop vehicles to conduct generalized interrogation.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 16, 2010 | 12:11 p.m.

Thanks Cindy for the info, I was actually posting on another thread. So then in order for this check point to be 'legal', I take it that first it must have been a checkpoint seeking evdidence into a *specific* crime of a particularly serious nature and involved looking into information of a crime that had already occurred (vs. a general fishing expedition)? Have I interpreted this correctly (partially?)

I find it hard to believe that all of the checkpoints I have been hearing about fit this criteria, even the one on VV, and if they don't would I be correct in assuming those who are conducting them are violating the law?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 16, 2010 | 12:46 p.m.

(@Ray: A "dry" downtown. Get real. The bar business would simply migrate somewhere else.")

And so would the police.
Having a downtown with a concentrated police force takes away from other areas of Columbia.
I'd rather see both the drinking students and CPD spread out more.
Otherwise, have liquor sold and consumed on campus and let the MU police watch the students.
Just doesn't seem right that CPD becomes a babysitting service for partying students and residential patrols elsewhere could improve.
(I wonder how parents of students who are paying for dorms would feel about this?)

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 16, 2010 | 7:33 p.m.

I think perhaps we should turn downtown Columbia into a big Party Plaza, use some of the money earmarked for extra Big Brother cameras and install a nice plaza setting where citizens could unwind after working 60 hours a week. Whatdaya think???

We could have lots of live music, exotic dancers, clowns, people on stilts, jugglers, skys the limit, lots of plants and landscaping, some fountains, and mood lighting. Oh, and of course a Mariachi band, gotta have that. Think of the crowds and dollars Columbia could bring in?

Instead of creating a hostile environment we could create a friendly environment, and a safe one too, we could have a couple of 'drunk busses' to cater revelers around, with piped in music (and mood lighting again of course) and perhaps some video for those like such things.

C'mon think outside the box, why not cater to what people want in a responsible and profitable way, find a way to make things work, beating people down and surveiling them 24/7 and extorting money (for nothing) from them isn't the only game in town.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 16, 2010 | 11:00 p.m.

24/7 Mardi Gras, red light district, bring the kids, no cops.
I'm game.
As long as it's in Rocheport.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 17, 2010 | 8:02 a.m.

Hmmm...Red Light District? I hadn't thought of that, you might be onto something but I'm betting P&Z would want it in a different part of town. We'd have to make sure it's on the 'drunk bus' route.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan Jordan April 17, 2010 | 10:07 a.m.

This city is already building a red light district on Old 63 just south of Business Loop 70.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 18, 2010 | 12:57 p.m.

You know in all fairness, I understand in parts of Germany that *sex workers* are licensed not unlike practicioners of other 'healing arts'. I believe they are even elgible to draw unemployment and medical, and receive annual exams and some type of certification to practice.

I'm not sure how this works out for them, but I have wonder sometimes if it wouldn't help get some of the people off the streets, lessen 'pimp' abuse, provide any needed medical/abuse issues help, and encourage people to seek the help they may need.

Not saying it might not have it's own drawbacks, just saying other countries seem to have different approaches, be intersting to take a more pragmatic look perhaps to try and solve problems by using actual data and critical thinking rather than perhaps entrenched dogma and mythology.

(Report Comment)
Shea Boresi April 18, 2010 | 4:51 p.m.

In response to the idea of a "dry" downtown:

Admittedly, alcohol-related problems are inevitable. However, regulation/enforcement are much better tactics than a ban. Moving the bar scene would definitely NOT improve the vibe downtown! One great thing about Columbia is that its cultural center is fairly concentrated. Moving the bars would contribute to sprawl--and would encourage drunk driving, besides!

Also, bars are more than JUST problem spots. I work at Ragtag and spend a lot of my free time there. Writing groups meet there; people experience and discuss film and music; they collaborate on creative projects--and, yes, alcohol is one component of the atmosphere. I've never seen a fight or felt threatened. Granted, it is a "certain kind" of bar (not the sort of place people go to get smashed) but it counts, too! It would certainly be a shame not to have such a place in the heart of downtown, due to an alcohol ban.

As for the anti-student sentiment I detect... Yes, underage drinking antics are annoying. But you cannot attempt to drive students away from the heart of the community. They are part of the heart of the community. Columbia would not be anything like the town it is if it were not for its universities.

(Report Comment)

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