The one-year mark approaches for Columbia Police Chief Burton

Thursday, April 1, 2010 | 3:43 p.m. CDT; updated 7:00 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 1, 2010
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton presents Matt Hibler with an award on Aug. 3, 2009, for heroic service at a fire in May 2009. Burton has been police chief for a year and has initiated a number of changes in that time.

COLUMBIA— Ken Burton became chief of the Columbia Police Department on April 4 of last year.

Since then, he has initiated a number of changes in the department.


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To make the operation more efficient, he switched to a 12-hour shift schedule. He is working to connect with the public and finding out what concerns they have.

One major shift has been a move toward geographic policing to make officers more visible to the public.

Here is a conversation with Burton, conducted as he neared the one-year anniversary of his hire.

Q. How is geographic policing going?

A. It’s an 18-month to two-year process. We split the captains up first, and then, in the most recent few months, we have divided the city into quadrants. Each quadrant  is assigned a lieutenant, so two lieutenants report to the captains. They have a quarter of the city that they geographically accountable for.

Each month we have a meeting where we discuss one side of town. We've done the north and south sides. Those at the meeting provide information on what they’re working on in their part of the city.

It can be something as simple as a parking issue people are complaining about or it could be a hotel where we are having calls for service.

Part of their geographic accountability is to tell me what they’re doing to address the issue. We try to look at it from the citizens' perspective. Many times as police officers we are surprised when we try to make an assumption based on information we have about what’s going to be of concern to citizens.

We’ve had several meeting with citizen groups put together by council members. We were very happy when we went back to Karl Skala’s group (Third Ward) and there were not as many people as there were at the first one.

I was asked if that was a disappointing turnout. Not at all. When people don’t come to those meetings, it means they are basically satisfied. When people are upset about something, that’s when you get 100 to 200 people out there.

Q. Is the Police Department short-handed? If so, how much?

A. Numbers are constantly in flux. For instance, we have two in the academy, three officers in field training and one that just got off field training.

We don’t count people in field training because they’re not working by themselves — they’re working with a senior officer. They’re learning.

I count them in our manpower because I want to know how many actual vacancies we have. That’s how I get training and recruiting to step up those efforts. We’ve got five in training, various stages of training. Those people are not really of good use to us right now.

We have five officers also on military leave. We have six vacancies.

Q. Are the vacancies affecting assignments to the geographic areas?

A. Not to the extent that it was. Police departments historically have carried all the vacancies in patrol where it affects the number of officers available for calls for service.

My philosophy is that every specialty group in the department should carry some of the vacancies. So we spread the vacancies among narcotics. There’s an opening in the street crimes unit, and there’s an opening in investigations. Everybody’s feeling the pain rather than having all the vacancies in patrol.

Q. Why carry vacancies in patrol?

A. The tendency was to fill detective positions; they were very, very important. That didn’t make any sense because you can’t control the workload of patrol.

We have to have enough officers available to answer the demand for 911 services. So it makes sense to spread the vacancies throughout the agency.

Q. Recently the department switched to 12-hour shifts. Why?

A. When I arrived here, we were working four 10-hour shifts, which meant officers worked 10-hour days. They worked four days a week and had three days off.

The flaw with that is most police agencies — not just Columbia — is you have to cover a 24-hour clock.

Let’s say we have 80 officers on patrol. You take those 80 officers and you go from a five-day shift where they’re working five eights, and you give them an extra day off a week, but you don’t add anything to the workforce. If everybody has an extra day off, they’re only working two more hours per day to make their 40 hours.

The 12-hour shift allows you to more effectively cover a 24-hour clock with the same number of officers. It’s a matter of efficiency and effectiveness.

The officers I think were naturally fearful of a 12-hour shift being kind of a long day. The reality was that most patrol officers, two or three on the night shifts and a lot of times on the day shifts were getting held over anyway because we didn’t have enough officers to adequately cover the shifts.

So the 12-hour shifts allowed us to use the same number of officers and do that more efficiently. It’s still in the experimental phase. While I want the department to be efficient, I also want them to be happy as employees to the extent that I can do that.

That’s obviously a secondary concern. Our first and foremost concern is the safety of the citizen.

Q. Do you think the 12-hour shifts will lead to problems with fatigue?

A. No. They were already being held over quite frequently, so they were working close to a 12-hour shift anyway. They never work more than two days in a row working 12-hour shifts. (Once every two weeks they work three days in a row, but one is an eight-hour shift.)

Q. Who reviews the red light camera violations? How is it going?

A. We’re not using police officers to do that. We use civilian employees who have been specially trained to identify the violations.

At the first two locations (Broadway and Providence Road and Stadium Boulevard and Worley Street), I think the number of violations is about the same as they were when it started. It may be a little bit down because people are paying more attention.

We just got two more locations (Stadium and Forum boulevards and southbound Stadium Boulevard and Providence Road). Some tweaking still needs to be done. They’re not issuing citations at this point, but they will shortly.

Eventually I think there are plans for 16.

Q. Is the Police Department’s record-keeping system going through a change?

A. We have a record management system that is probably 15 years old. It is text-based. The technology is out now to go to a Windows-based system that is much more user-friendly.

We spend a lot of time writing reports because the system is so cumbersome. It is very, very difficult for officers to get the information into the system. Once we get it in there, it’s very difficult to get out.

We need a new record management system. We are exploring that with the county and the Public Safety Joint Communications group.

Q. Is the Police Department seeking accreditation?

A. Accreditation is something police agencies seek. It’s not required as it is for universities, for instance. The norm for police agencies across the United States is for them to not be accredited.

The Commission on Accreditation on Law Enforcement Agencies will come in to look at your policies and your procedures with the intent of keeping you at a level with other agencies in the United States of similar size that engage in the best practices in law enforcement.

We will seek accreditation. It’s a four- or five-step process.

The first step is having your policy manual in order. We are in the process of rewriting the manual. It was very outdated, so we’re going to start over. We've been at two months, and it's about a 10-month to a year process.

It gives the department and the public a certain level of trust to know that the department’s polices and procedures are reviewed periodically to make sure we are keeping up with the latest trends and best practices in law enforcement. It’s kind of an insurance policy that I think is reassuring to the public and a matter of pride for the department itself.

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John Schultz April 1, 2010 | 4:25 p.m.

Wait a second, so no actual police officers are reviewing the alleged red light camera violators that are forwarded to the city from Gatso? Can civilian employees actually right violations for the city prosecutor to take to court? If I'm understanding the article correctly, seems pretty iffy to me.

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