Candidates for Fifth Ward council seat discuss crime, Police Department

Sunday, January 27, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:54 p.m. CST, Monday, January 28, 2013

COLUMBIA — Candidates for the Fifth Ward seat on the Columbia City Council say that crime is an important issue that will require additional money, an engaged police chief and community assistance to adequately address it.

Susan 'Tootie' Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser are vying to win the Feb. 5 special election for the seat left open by Helen Anthony, who resigned late last year.

Burns said the police department and neighborhoods should coordinate their efforts to prevent crime. Jones said he would approach crime using the targeting and community engagement methods of public health policy. Nauser said her approach would focus on youth policy and eliminating gangs in the city.

Challenges in the Columbia Police Department

The Police Department has been under fire since at least 2006, when a report by the MU Center for the Study of Organizational Change found problems there. The city commissioned another study in 2012 by consultant Eric Anderson, who found that the department's culture had become toxic and that the general condition was worse than in 2006. Anderson's report, which includes the 2006 study as an appendix, revealed 12 entrenched problems and recommended 14 solutions.

The report's observations accounted for Columbia's historical rate of crime. In the 10-year span from 2000 to 2010, the department's authorized strength grew from 127 to 160 officers. Violent crime increased, too, from 374 to 530 incidents per year, according to department data included in the report.

Incidents of property crime and burglary have remained consistent over the past decade, while forcible rape, aggravated assault and homicide rates have risen and declined cyclically. Still, among Missouri cities with populations of more than 100,000, Columbia ranks among the safest with 4.88 violent crimes per 1,000 people, compared to Springfield's rate of 8.33 and St. Louis' 19.43.

Anderson found that the department suffers from poor officer morale and poor leadership. Specific problems included poor internal communication, pay compression, unfocused departmental vision, inadequate officer training that potentially endangers officers in the line of duty, and "arbitrary and capricious" application of discipline. Anderson also found that the department's facilities are inadequate.

The report recommended holding the police chief and command staff accountable for their lack of performance in following the recommendations of the 2006 study. It also suggested the department needed to improve communication, establish a more equitable internal justice system, pay officers more, increase training and build a new police headquarters.

Burns advocates community policing

Burns said that crime is a significant issue for Columbians and that as a parent with school-age children, she has shared the alarm of many parents who have received lockdown calls from schools. One was initiated recently by the discovery of gang writing in a restroom on campus.

"I do believe gangs are here in Columbia," Burns said.

Burns said the police force is stretched thin as they contend with gang activity and petty crime. Burns said she would try to ensure the department has sufficient budgetary support.

"I would like to reflect the fact that safety is an issue and citizens want to feel safe in their community," she said.

Burns said she would like to see more emphasis on community policing, which encourages officers to work closely with neighborhoods to prevent crime.

"It's neighbors looking out for neighbors," Burns said. "I believe that our neighborhood associations, whether formal or informal, are our first line of defense."

Burns has said during the campaign that residents have voiced their displeasure over department changes that have resulted in the reassignment of neighborhood beat officers.

Burns said she also wants the council to hear regular reports from the police chief about solutions to pressing concerns.

Jones would enlist communities and targeting to fight crime

Jones said accountability is an important element in fixing morale at the department. The Anderson report, he said, made it clear that the environment within the department is detrimental, especially among the leadership.

Police Chief Ken Burton is responsible for implementing the changes required in the Anderson report, Jones said, and he should be allowed time to fix the department's problems. City Manager Mike Matthes, however, should switch out personnel if they fail to follow through.

Jones said he is an advocate of methods that have proven successful in larger cities. "Some communities have adopted a model where they are viewing crime not only as an enforcement issue but also as a whole community issue."

One method Jones said he would use is the so-called "pulling levers" strategy that isolates and targets a specific problem. Jones said this approach to crime fighting uses some of the same tools used in public health policy.

"The key on this is that you have to be highly targeted," Jones said. "... And what you do is involve not only vertically local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, but you go horizontally and work with nonprofits and community groups. When you involve communities and isolate the problem, you can have a 30 to 40 percent reduction in the problem you are trying to target."

Jones said his approach to crime requires careful focus and implementation. It also requires a regular stream of high-quality information to policy makers.

"Data collection should always be a key function of the city so that we can make informed choices that are not based on persons' impressions but made on actual, concrete information," he said.

Nauser says juveniles and gangs are key to crime problem

Nauser's experience working with juveniles informs her view that data and action are needed to address crime. "I think there is a problem and it is growing," she said.

Nauser said she sees gang influence growing in Columbia. "People feel we don't have that problem, but unless you admit you have the problem, you are never going to solve the problem."

Nauser said it doesn't matter whether gangs in Columbia are home grown or local chapters of larger and older national groups such as the Crips or Bloods, Nauser said. She said proactive policing should be the goal.

"I would like to see more cooperation, more data collection, more comparing between juvenile offices and the department," Nauser said. "If we have the data, we can decide where to focus, get to know the people, keep an eye on the area."

Nauser said the city should strike a balance, however, between supporting the use of technology to prevent crime and protecting privacy.

"I am a privacy advocate," she said. "I don't like government going into people's lives and snooping. That's a slippery slope."

Another challenge, Nauser said, is choosing between buying new crime-fighting technology and hiring more patrol officers.

Speaking about officer morale, Nauser said the department has challenges within. "Change is difficult, and it can be a precursor to changes in morale."

Nauser said the City Council should act as a facilitator to clarify emerging problems in the department. 

"We shouldn't be working against each other," she said. "We should be working together."

Even so, Nauser said, it would be the city manager's responsibility to deal with the police chief if problems continue.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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