COLUMBIA — Crime has been a divisive topic in campaign rhetoric leading up to the April 6 municipal election. An initiative on the ballot, Proposition 1, would place surveillance cameras downtown and has helped push crime to the forefront of community discussion.
Candidates for mayor and for two seats on the Columbia City Council have made differing claims about the state of crime in the city. Some say crime is up; others say that's not necessarily the case.
So what is the true state of criminal activity in Columbia?
The Missouri Highway Patrol collects data from every city in the state as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The figures in the database are based on incident and arrest reports. The Missourian analyzed data between 2001 and 2009 and adjusted the numbers to reflect population growth.
Adjusted for population, violent crime was up 25 percent between 2008 and 2009, while property crime was down 2.6 percent. However, the overall trend between 2001 and 2009 shows that crime has remained more or less flat. Population numbers are not yet available for 2009; the population figure used for that year is based on the average rate of growth between 2001 and 2008.
Violent crime includes murder, rape, armed robbery and aggravated assault. Property crime includes burglary, theft, auto theft and arson.
Some relevant figures:
- In 2001, the rate of violent crime was actually higher in Columbia than it is now. When adjusted for population, the city saw 50.7 violent crimes for every 10,000 residents in 2001 compared to 48.8 in 2009.
- Violent crime peaked in 2007 with 62.4 violent crimes committed for every 10,000 people.
- Violent crime fell 37.6 percent between 2007 and 2008.
- 2001 was the highest year for property crime, with 419.7 crimes per 10,000 people.
- The average yearly violent crime rate between 2001 and 2009 was 48.9 per 10,000 people.
- The average yearly property crime rate for the period was 374.8 per 10,000 people.
- 2009 saw 501 violent crimes and 4,075 property crimes in Columbia.
- The average yearly number of violent crimes between 2001 and 2009 was 461. The average number of property crimes was 3,529.
What the candidates have said:
Bob McDavid: In an interview with the Missourian, McDavid claimed a 30 percent increase in violent crime for 2009. He is the only mayoral candidate to endorse surveillance cameras downtown. A message on the front page of his Web site puts the issue front and center.
"Columbia residents don’t feel as safe in their homes or in downtown as they did 10 years, 5 years or 2 years ago," he says on the site. "I want to talk candidly about crime and how to prevent it. I support Proposition 1 for the addition of safety cameras downtown."
Jerry Wade: In an interview with the Missourian, Wade said he thinks police should focus on enforcement in neighborhoods. Wade opposes placing cameras downtown because it would lock police resources into a particular area.
"That means that we are telling people in northern Columbia, where there’s actually a more serious crime problem, that we are not going to allow those resources to be available for the police department to make the decision of how they are best used," Wade said.
Sid Sullivan: He thinks crime is largely an issue of perception. He believes crime is on the decline downtown and opposes Proposition 1, saying downtown business owners could form a neighborhood association or community improvement district if they want to pay for them.
"We've had a couple of really outrageous crimes where we've had home invasions and a beating in a downtown parking garage," he says. "When crime increases it takes a long time for the public to become aware of it. There is a perception of crime that follows crime."
Paul Love: He said he decided to run for mayor after a homicide at the Red Roof Inn near his home in north Columbia. He doesn't believe surveillance cameras downtown would be an effective deterrent. But he says on his Web site that he is running to "reduce crime and make Columbia a safe place to live again."
Sean O'Day: He opposes surveillance cameras downtown and instead would like to hire more police officers.
"I think the best way to curb crime is to get more police so that they're actually patrolling," he said.
Sal Nuccio: In an interview with the Missourian, Nuccio said he thinks crime is a problem. Nuccio owns Eastside Tavern downtown. He expressed tacit support for downtown cameras.
“The cameras would be useful only if they were strategically placed at crime hot spots in The District, not on every corner of every street,” Nuccio said.
Gary Kespohl: He has said violent crime is up 30 percent in Columbia. In an interview with the Missourian, Kespohl put some of the blame on the courts.
"My opinion is that, when someone commits those crimes, judges are too lenient," he said. "If we'd incarcerate those people for some period of time, then that might be a deterrent." Kespohl supports downtown surveillance cameras, saying they will help solve crimes even if they don't deter them.
Karl Skala: Crime, Skala said, is a problem in Columbia. But he doesn't think the numbers are higher than they have been.
"Absolutely there's a problem with crime in Columbia," Skala said. "Although the data does show that things have improved with violent crime from 2007 to 2010."
Skala personally opposes surveillance cameras but said he'll follow the wishes his constituents express in the vote on Proposition 1. He said private cameras financed by a community improvement district are a better idea.
Tracy Greever-Rice: She thinks it's important to know what the actual trends are so that resources can be assigned accordingly. She said any use of surveillance cameras downtown needs to be based on evidence of where they would be most useful, and she trusts Police Chief Ken Burton to do that if Proposition 1 passes.
"I think we need to be deliberative and understanding of what the actual crime problem is and what the trends are in the city," Greever-Rice said. "I think it is an issue that is very dangerous to politicize."
Sarah Read: Read also has said that crime in Columbia is a matter of perception.
"I think overall we have a very safe community compared to many cities, however perception is nine-tenths of reality," Read said. She supports the placement of Proposition 1 on the ballot, saying discussion of downtown cameras was "prematurely cut off." She says she'll respect the vote of the people whether the measure passes or fails.
Daryl Dudley: Dudley has said that crime is a problem regardless of what the trends are. He "unconditionally" supports downtown cameras as an additional tool for police.
"Crime is a problem. If you have crime, it's a problem," he said. Dudley has also said he favors hiring more police officers.
Rick Buford: He said he thinks crime in Columbia is increasing, and he worries about how it will affect city spending.
"I think crime is a growing problem," he said. "(Burton), I believe, has a pretty clear plan of what he wants to do. Unfortunately his plan is going to require us to spend more dollars, and at this point we're having trouble staffing police and fire positions and staying within budgets."
Buford supports the effort to place Proposition 1 on the ballot but said he doesn't believe downtown cameras would be an efficient use of city money.