COLUMBIA — Bleak.
That's how an independent consultant's report characterized the state of the Columbia Police Department.
City Manager Mike Matthes and Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton spoke at a news conference Tuesday morning at City Hall to address the findings of an independent review of the Police Department.
They also discussed what changes would be implemented within the department as a result of several serious issues raised in the report, which was written by Eric Anderson Associates after a three-month review of the department. That review included 130 interviews with the department's sworn officers and civilian employees and with members of the City Council, the Citizens Police Review Board and the public.
Matthes quoted from the report: "Officer morale is regularly identified as having gotten worse. The supervisory culture is approaching toxicity. Internal communication is confused and inadequate."
Matthes called the report "a wake-up call to the senior leadership of the police department."
He said Anderson's findings represented the sum total of years of increasing public dissatisfaction with the Police Department. Matthes said community satisfaction had slumped from 81 percent in 2005 to 69 percent when the review was conducted.
"In a real sense, the community has lowered the report card of the Police Department from a B to a D over six years," Matthes said.
Matthes said "a number of high-profile failures," combined with poor communication from leadership, were the root of the problem.
The report lists 12 findings that highlight ongoing problems within the department:
- Morale is "extraordinarily low." Most officers are uncertain and hesitant. They fear the lack of clear direction might cause them to over- or under-react to situations, which might result in injury or death to themselves or citizens.
- The department is marred by general confusion in its supervisory direction and goals. It lacks uniform purpose, mission and values. Communication lines are frayed between officers and senior staff, which results in incomplete or inconsistent direction.
- Sergeants and officers believe it's unfair that pay compression has only been addressed for ranks above sergeant.
- Officers feel qualifications for promotion do not accurately correspond to on-the-job performance.
- Department facilities are inadequate to foster communication and cooperation between leadership and officers.
- Training meets only the minimum state requirements, creating gaps in officers' preparedness on the job.
- Disciplinary procedures are felt to be arbitrary.
Although many of the problems listed in the report were first cited in a 2006 review conducted under former Police Chief Randy Boehm, Burton took full responsibility for the failings in his department.
"As chief of police, I own it," Burton said during the news conference.
Still, Burton said that morale is "a function of the entire command staff" and that he would rely heavily on those around him to create a better work environment. He said the report confirmed what he had suspected for the past few years: that he had not had 100 percent cooperation from his senior staff.
The report offered 14 recommendations for making improvements in the department. They include:
- Initiate a thorough review of the police chief and his senior command staff to determine their ability to lead and resolve the aforementioned problems. While Matthes did not suggest that any immediate personnel changes were being considered, he did say, "Everyone in the senior leadership will be reviewed by me."
- Communicate more clearly strategic purpose and values within the department to all staff.
- Build a new police headquarters "that, through its architecture, encourages communication between and among the ranks."
- Finish codifying the general rules, orders and policies of the department, a process that began three years ago.
- Increase training requirements. The report says that 48 percent of the department's officers have fewer than five years of experience and that older officers are at risk of diminishing skills.
- Address pay compression for all staff as soon as possible and establish a clear promotional system that is based on merit.
- Create a fair and impersonal internal justice system for dealing with complaints and allegations regarding violations of policy. The city manager would oversee that system.
- Create a system of joint patrol/citizen committees to foster dialogue between the department and vulnerable minority and low-income populations.
Matthes said he intends to develop "a road map" over the coming months to implement all 14 recommendations in the report. Funding, however, could be an issue when it comes to increasing salaries or paying for a new headquarters.
Burton said that personally he is taking this opportunity to make a renewed commitment to citizens and to the police officers working in his ranks. He said he hopes to eventually make the Columbia Police Department a model for others.
The city paid $45,000 for the report.