City Council candidates discuss the Police Department

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Missourian reporters asked candidates for seats on the Columbia City Council nine standardized questions about city government issues. Here are their verbatim answers to a question about the Police Department.

What changes, if any, do you believe are necessary within the Columbia Police Department, and how would you work to achieve them?

Mayoral candidates

Bob McDavid: "(A) core function (of) local government is police protection and crime prevention. We, we – it is true that violent crime rates are falling, as documented by the FBI Uniform Crime Report. But the Columbia Police Department, although they have great, fully disciplined, brave, hard-working officers, have not – the customer satisfaction, citizen satisfaction surveys, rank our service below the norm regionally and nationally, and that is not acceptable. Employee engagement scores in the Police Department – morale – are unsatisfactorily low. We have a police chief that is new here, relatively – three, four years. We (are) in the middle of a 14-point road map to improve the culture within the Police Department based on the Anderson Report from two years ago. I think the changes are under way. It is going to be successful, and we’re going to have a Police Department that has the confidence of the citizens of Columbia at large."

Sid Sullivan: "Well, we've expanded the area in which the police have to cover. Currently Columbia is 65 square miles. The new chief has brought in a data-driven process where he is positioning his officers on their beats based on the higher-crime areas. But we probably need an additional substation up in the northern part of the city so that officers don't have to come all the way into the central office. And we need to take a look at some of the capital needs of the Police Department. In terms of the number of police, I don't have that figure. The police say we don't need them, the police officers said we do need them, so there's an uncertainty there. But we need to look at crime prevention as well as just putting police on the street."

Third Ward candidates

Karl Skala: "Well, the biggest thing in terms of public safety and crime that we face in this community is lack of public trust, and that’s something that we need to build. The best way to deal with crime, generally, is to get more people on the streets and to be safe in their own neighborhoods. Certainly Neighborhood Watch programs are a part of that but also community policing. And by community policing, I don’t mean just zero tolerance to arrest anyone who is doing something wrong. I mean getting out there and developing sources so that we know who the bad guys are, and people are willing to reveal the bad guys to help the police. You can never have enough police to really attack this problem from a reactive point of view. I have a little bit of background in this. My daughter is a police officer, and I am familiar with some of the procedures that go on in the Police Department. So community policing is key, but it has to be an approach that engenders public trust."

Gary Kespohl: "I've said for about six years (that) Columbia's expanding, growing out. It's too far from downtown police station to get to Thornbrook, which is far southwest, or out in my area far northeast. We probably need, my opinion is we need to establish two precincts: one on the north side of Columbia and one on the south side of Columbia. So the Police Department, when they're in the station, they're closer to where they need to be when they get a call. But they have to come clear downtown to come down here and change shifts. If they're out in Thornbrook, it takes them 20 minutes just to drive downtown and change shifts. So if we go to more neighborhood policing and put those precincts out there, they'll also have faster response time."

Fourth Ward candidates

Daryl Dudley: "The Police Department needs to be run different in that the police need to know they are a service to the community, and that the community that they're dealing with is their customer. We need better customer service from the officers, and that starts from the top. Everyone needs to be talking to the people when they see them. Nobody needs to be looking at a police officer as an adversary, even when you meet them on the street and say hi. We also need to have precinct patrols so that the officers that are in an area are well known by everybody in that area and not moving all around the city to where people don’t know them. And I think that’s the biggest thing that we need to do is make precinct patrols. Get people to know their officers in their area, and they get comfortable being around them. It’s worked extremely well in Douglass Park and in the downtown patrol with the bars and students and everybody in the businesses. So, again, customer contact. Keep it friendly, keep it light, and everyone gets along."

Ian Thomas: "I met with Chief Burton a couple of weeks ago. He described the current situation in terms of staffing and beat officers. There’s no question that the number of beat officers that he has relative to the size of our population is a lot less than it was a decade or two ago, and it’s also a lot less than our normal standards in other communities, so increased staffing is certainly important. There have been a few violent crimes, drug-, gang-related crimes, in Columbia over recent years, and the Police Department has experimented with a community-policing approach, which has been quite successful. It is more resource intensive than regular policing, but I think the evidence is that it’s well worth it in the overall benefits of building the trust between community leaders and law enforcement officers and keeping a handle on crime that way."

Bill Weitkemper: "Well, I think a better relationship needs to be established between the administration and the officers. That’s obviously not a very good relationship the way it is now. There seems to be a lot of distrust between the officers and administration. I’m not sure that can be corrected without some changes in personnel. I think the chief’s been here going on four years, so it’s about time they straighten things out if they’re going to be able to."

Missourian reporters Hannah Cushman, Elizabeth Pearl, Tony Puricelli, Madeline O'Leary, Chris Jasper, Allison Prang and Nuria Mathog contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

To hear audio clips from the candidates, go to the Missourian's local government blog, The Watchword.

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