COLUMBIA — Columbia City Council candidates exchanged views on public safety issues Tuesday night at the Boone Electric Cooperative.
Candidates Barbara Hoppe and Bill Tillotson from the Sixth Ward and Mike Atkinson, Bill Pauls and Michael Trapp from the Second Ward addressed the audience in a half-full community room.
The forum was sponsored by Keep Columbia Safe, a community resource group that advocates efficient law enforcement and public safety awareness in the city.
Tom Bradley, a radio personality on KSSZ/93.9 FM, moderated the affair. The pressing topics included:
Citizens Police Review Board
Bradley asked the candidates about the civilian oversight of law enforcement in Columbia, particularly whether they found the Citizens Police Review Board successful.
Established in 2009, the review board's main goal is to foster trust and responsibility between the Columbia Police Department and the community.
Atkinson said he found the Citizens Police Review Board to be a "step in the right direction," but he'd rather the board have a little more say in city affairs.
"I'd like to see the review board with more teeth, more affect on policy," Atkinson said. "It would give us as citizens more of a feeling of control."
Pauls responded that the decision is still out on the review board.
"We have professionals in the police department," Pauls said. "I don't know if a citizen without background can stand up and judge a professional."
In principle, Trapp said he is in favor of a review board. But he mentioned that it "hadn't lived up to its promises," citing constituents he's spoken to in the Second Ward who don't feel represented by the current review board.
Sixth Ward voters, however, seem very happy with the review board, Hoppe said.
"By and large I think it's been very successful," Hoppe said. "The opportunity for review keeps discontent and concern from going underground."
Tillotson said he thinks the review board has "a ways to go," and residents shouldn't discount the fact that the police officers are highly trained and putting their lives on the line every day.
'Eyes on the street'
Forum attendee Alice Turner said her automobile had recently been broken into while parked in front of her house. She later found out her neighbor had also been the victim of a car break-in. She asked the candidates how they would beef-up communication between neighbors to help prevent nonviolent crimes in Columbia.
Hoppe said part of the problem is that Columbia needs more "eyes on the street."
"Part of it is knowing your neighbors and getting involved," Hoppe said.
Trapp agreed, saying he felt safe right now knowing his neighbor was watching his house.
"For people who largely don't feel safe, my follow-up question is: Do you know your neighbors?" Trapp said.
Pauls serves as his community's neighborhood watch chairman and neighborhood association president. He proposed breaking things down to a micro-level, holding monthly neighborhood meetings at a local church or other establishment where neighbors could talk to each other.
"The city tries to do things, but people are too busy," Pauls said. "This way, put some cookies on the table, give them something to drink, and people will show up."
Atkinson said he's talked to voters in the Second Ward and is fearful of the rise in property crime in Columbia. He's been a victim himself.
"Someone stole something near and dear to my heart," Atkinson said. "My golf clubs."
But he said ultimately the majority of crime happens at night, and it's the police officers who are going to "watch our backs when we're sleeping."
Tillotson said he's blessed to feel safe in his neighborhood but thinks infrastructure concerns could play a role in crime.
"I want to know if the neighborhood is well lit," Tillotson said. "Do we need more lighting? Are there basic safety improvements that could prevent this?"
Number of police officers
With the population increasing in Columbia, Bradley asked the candidates if something should be done to address the shortage of officers per citizen.
Pauls said the city could always use more police officers, but that crime is not necessarily about police.
"It's about us," Pauls said. "It's easy to point the finger at the police department, but they go out there for us, and then individuals second guess them."
Pauls advocated writing questions on the back of utility bills to make it easier for citizens to voice their concerns to the city.
A coordinated community response is the solution, Trapp said. He doesn't see a need for more police officers at this point.
Tillotson mentioned the poor reviews the police department recently received but said people from around the state still tell him that the department is one of the best in Missouri, regardless of the findings.
Hoppe said that the problem in Columbia is bigger than the police force — it's multi-layered.
"We need to look at the bigger picture," Hoppe said. "Throwing money and police at it isn't enough."
Atkinson said he's not in favor of hiring more police officers if it means raising taxes.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People candidate forum is the next stop for the council prospects. The forum will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Second Baptist Church, 407 E. Broadway.