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Columbia Missourian

Columbia City Council candidates share perceptions of crime, Police Department

By Jacob Kirn
March 29, 2012 | 2:28 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — An unusual number of reported gunshots in February and recent deadly shootings on March 4 and March 12 have alarmed Columbia residents and city officials alike.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton has said he believes many of the gunshots are the result of gang-related activity and called the people involved "thugs."

Meanwhile, on March 6 City Manager Mike Matthes announced the findings of an independent consultant hired to evaluate the Police Department. The report by Eric Anderson found police morale and leadership lacking.

Long-term police data show that homicides in Columbia have remained flat from 2000 to 2010, the most recent year listed. In 2010, there were three "criminal homicides." 

Ahead of Tuesday's election, the Missourian asked the five City Council candidates about their perceptions of crime and the Columbia Police Department.

Sixth Ward candidate Barbara Hoppe

Hoppe pointed to Police Department crime statistics and emphasized that crime rates have remained relatively flat since 1985. In some categories, crime has declined.

She talked specifically about larceny. In 1985, when the population of Columbia was more than 64,000, a total of 3,194 larcenies were reported. That's about 49 larcenies per 1,000 residents. In 2010, the population had swelled to more than 108,000, and reported larcenies dipped to 3,129. That's a rate of about 29 larcenies per 1,000 residents. 

“You do want to be accurate, so you see where you’re improving and where you’re not,” Hoppe said.

Hoppe said the recent shootings that prompted proactive patrols by the Columbia Police Department are a complicated issue that requires a reasoned response.

“You can’t have a policeman on every corner, and no city could afford that. Even then, if you could, it wouldn’t stop crime,” Hoppe said.

She said that in her time on the council, she has approved the hiring of new police officers in proportion to population increases. She emphasized that police are only one aspect of crime prevention.

Hoppe also voted in favor of the Citizens Police Review Board in 2009 to provide civilian oversight of the Police Department.

Hoppe, who said she frequently visits downtown in the evenings, questioned the need for cameras on public property downtown. She cited the results of the ballot issue in 2010 that authorized the cameras' installation. Those results suggested, in general, she said, that residents of the neighborhoods directly surrounding downtown opposed the measure, while those swayed by media coverage and advertisements in outlying areas of town favored the cameras.

The other concern, she said, is about equity, targeting high-crime areas with the cameras and ensuring businesses pay their fair share for surveillance.

“It was a complicated issue,” Hoppe said. “That’s the long and the short of it.”

Hoppe said that although she opposed the cameras, once the people voted in favor of the measure, she authorized the money to install them.

Sixth Ward candidate Bill Tillotson

Tillotson said that despite statistics showing a flat crime rate over the past several years, public perception is that crime is on the rise.

"We've had more than 100 rounds discharged since the first of the year," Tillotson said. "I'm concerned about it. And when I talk to people, they're concerned about it."

Tillotson said the morale issues within the Columbia Police Department are serious and should be addressed quickly.

"(Officers) aren't staying with us like they used to; there's turnover," Tillotson said. "Maybe the council stayed out of this for too long."

Police officers and leadership should be divided into groups to address grievances and concerns with the city manager and the City Council, Tillotson said.

"The city leadership needs to be hearing it from their own ears," he said. 

Second Ward candidate Bill Pauls

Pauls, the president of the Hunters Gate Neighborhood Association, said Neighborhood Watch programs — in addition to the efforts of police officers — are a vital community resource in curtailing crime. He said strong neighborhood and family ties create what he calls “front-porch vigilance,” a strategy that thwarts the anonymity that encourages crime.

“When people know that people are watching, they’re less likely to commit crimes,” Pauls said.

Pauls added that he would prefer greater collaboration between Neighborhood Watch organizations and the Columbia Police Department.

“Police used to be very involved in Neighborhood Watch,” Pauls said. “Now, it’s almost solely an individual responsibility.” He said that regardless of whether he is elected, he will advocate for police attendance at Neighborhood Watch meetings to encourage cooperation.

Pauls said efforts to beef up neighborhood vigilance also include planning and zoning considerations. He cited the Auburn Hills neighborhood in the Second Ward as an example.

The construction of Section 8 housing — a type of federal program designed to assist low-income families with payment for rental properties — caused property values to decrease, Pauls said. There was a proportionate increase in the crime rate, he said.

Pauls said that though the housing might have been needed following disasters such as  Hurricane Katrina that displaced thousands of Louisiana residents and brought some to Columbia, the process of creating it should include consideration of the impact on surrounding areas.

“Part of the problem was the speed at which some of that development occurred and where it was placed to provide a solution to that national problem,” Pauls said.

He added that he would consider those factors when similar zoning questions come before the council.

Second Ward candidate Michael Trapp

Trapp said the Police Department is on track with managing crime. 

"Crime rates are not growing as fast as the population," Trapp said. But the recent shootings have brought the need for adequate police protection to the forefront, he said.

"I don't think a few more police officers would impact the situation," Trapp said.

Trapp favors a community approach to addressing larceny crimes in the Second Ward. That means getting neighbors to watch out for each other.

"Things happen less often at night," Trapp said. "It's really 3 to 5 p.m. after school when mischief crimes take place."

Second Ward candidate Mike Atkinson

Atkinson said he would like to see crime rates go down and a part of doing that is addressing low police morale. 

"I would like to find the money to pay the officers better," Atikinson said. "(Their salaries) are not comparable to larger cities or comparable cities.

Atkinson said he would find the extra money in the general fund. 

"There's a lot of operational costs that can be reduced," Atkinson said. "Like our supplies and materials went up 11 percent (from last year)."

Atkinson said he would like to see more police cars in his neighborhood.

"I've talked to people that have had things stolen, people who have had their houses broken into," Atkinson said. "We would like to see more patrols."

Missourian reporter Kip Hill contributed to this article.