COLUMBIA — City leaders are pondering a curfew for teenagers and other ideas for preventing crime after a recent spate of shootings that included a June 15 episode downtown that left three people injured.
Members of the Columbia City Council joined City Manager Mike Matthes and Police Chief Ken Burton for a brainstorming session Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours before police announced that they had made an arrest in the downtown shooting. Eric Cravens, 20, faces three counts of first-degree assault and one count of armed criminal action.
The idea of imposing a curfew prompted most discussion at the meeting. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser proposed a curfew immediately after the shooting downtown.
Burton said a curfew was the first idea that came to his mind after he saw the downtown shooting video. He was struck by the number of junior high and high school students — 60 to 80 — who were "walking toward trouble" instead of what they thought was harmless fun.
"The person that took the video told us he believed there was going to be a fight, and so did every kid in that group," Burton said.
Burton said that although one victim was identified as 19 and the other two as 23, the victims very easily could have been children because the "thugs" that did the shooting were indiscriminate.
"There is no reason any child under 17 should be downtown at 1 a.m," Burton said. "There is nothing open, there is nothing to do at 1 a.m."
Burton said that he intends to have a written curfew proposal for the City Council to consider within the next 30 days but that it must be drafted with input from the public, the council and the Boone County Juvenile Office. He plans to propose an ordinance with a two-year sunset.
Council members Michael Trapp and Barbara Hoppe of the Second and Sixth wards, respectively, oppose a curfew because most youth crime is committed between 3 and 5 p.m.
"A curfew violation is a status crime," Trapp said. "You are guilty not because of what you are doing, but because of who you are. (Curfews) promote criminality and increased contact with the criminal justice system. It increases the crime rate."
Hoppe worries about restricting young adults unnecessarily when many have jobs and work late. She said a curfew would subject every college-age student to being stopped by police and asked for an ID. She also said a curfew could be difficult to enforce and could divert officers from their regular duties.
Other ideas proposed at the meeting included:
An advising task force: Nauser said crime is a multi-faceted problem that cannot be addressed with only one solution. She said it will take prevention, intervention and strong enforcement by police and the community to solve recent problems. She suggested a task force of people with expertise on the subject.
"We must not make hasty policy decisions based on fear and emotion because these types of decisions prove to have no impact," Nauser said.
Trapp and Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas supported Nauser's idea.
"I have some ideas of people I would like to see on that task force that I believe could bring a lot of understanding to what's going on," Thomas said. "I hope the task force casts its net broadly and takes into account the undeniable fact that a lot of the community is disenfranchised from the public process. My suspicion is that that has a lot to do with what we are talking about."
Family interventions: Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid suggested families and the community need to talk with teenagers to learn what they're involved with.
"We need to find out what our young community members are doing," McDavid said. "We need to grab our loved ones by the shoulders, look them in the eye and protect them."
More police officers: McDavid is asking Matthes to include money for more police officers in the budget for fiscal 2014. He said the city will not tolerate a culture of violence or intimidation.
"When we fail as a community, it's Chief Burton who cleans up the mess," McDavid said.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala agreed with McDavid that Columbia needs more police because of its "robust growth," but he reminded everyone that a police officer costs about $100,000 per year.
Acknowledging the presence of gangs: Nauser said Columbia saw one of its worst years for crime in 2007, when 617 violent crimes were committed. She said a large number of young people involved with those crimes, which prompted her to present a white paper entitled "A Change in Direction for Youth and Family Issues for the City of Columbia, Missouri" to her fellow council members, staff and the community in 2008. Nauser also made 28 policy goals and recommendations.
"While our community has made great progress in many areas, we have failed in the very first goal and policy objective I set forward — admitting we have emerging issues and challenges," Nauser said. "One of those emerging issues is a growing criminal gang element in our community."
Nauser said she knows of five to six local gangs that have been in Columbia for years and are just as dangerous as national gangs because they have illegal weapons, deal drugs, commit theft and create violence.
"Just because we don't have a visible presence of national gangs, such as the Bloods and Crips, does not mean we don't have a problem," Nauser said.
Re-entry programs: Hoppe said the city has coordinated and focused better in recent years to make sure young people have a safe place to learn and grow, but she noted that the drop-out rate for black males in Columbia is 9 percent, while the national average is 4 percent.
"We know that young adults most likely to be involved in violent activities may be homeless, crashing on pads and dealing with untreated mental illness or chemical or drug dependency," Hoppe said.
Hoppe said the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families has proven that communities can reduce gang violence through intensive re-entry services.
"Improved support for job training and re-entry programs for people who have been to jail and served time are needed to put and keep young adults on the right path in life," Hoppe said.
Mentoring programs: Hoppe said the city needs stronger mentoring programs and a way to integrate authentic youth voices into leadership initiatives that focus on reducing violence among youth.
"Many college students are 17 when they first start attending," Hoppe said. "It is hard to tell a 17-year-old from a 21-year-old or a 25-year-old. But we know and can determine the individuals who have dropped out of school, who are truant from school or have had brushes with the law and lack of supportive families... and can help divert them from violence and gang activity."
Neighborhood watch groups: Trapp said residents who want to be safer should get to know their neighbors. He said he leaves his garage door open and has never had a problem because his neighbors across the street are always watching.
"We have to re-engage," Trapp said. "Let's not lose sight of the things that are really important. We are safe here. Things are OK."
Matthes said public safety is the first job of city government, and he wanted the special meeting to evolve into ongoing conversation about crime prevention.
"We won't all agree on every element of what we are discussing," Matthes said. "The focus of this will be continued police work on these incidents. We will find and bring these criminals to justice."