COLUMBIA — The coverage I’ve read and the comments I’ve heard since Mayor Bob McDavid’s virtuoso performance in City Hall on Monday have dealt almost exclusively with his call for a property-tax increase to pay for 35 more cops.
That was certainly the big news. It seems to me, however, that the facts about crime in Columbia that occupied most of his hour-long speech deserve more attention than they’ve received.
Those facts and a critical examination of our Police Department, which the mayor mentioned in passing, raise a couple of questions we probably should answer before we raise our taxes to hire more police.
Mayor McDavid put up a series of slides that showed how exaggerated is the public furor about a nonexistent “crime wave” in Columbia.
His display of FBI crime statistics, for example, showed that in terms of violent crimes per capita, we’re nowhere near as troubled as we were in the mid-'90s.
Violent crime was down noticeably for all of 2012. So far this year, it is running at about the three-decade average. Assaults are actually down a little this year. And about all those homicides: In 1994 and 2000, Columbia suffered nine homicides. In the first seven months of 2013, we’ve had four.
The FBI statistics also show that property crimes are far below the rates of the mid-'90s. Burglaries are 60 percent lower than back then.
When he compared Columbia to the other four Missouri cities with more than 100,000 residents, it turns out that our crime rate last year was below St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield and tied with Independence. We were also below the notably peaceful Midwestern metropolises of Des Moines, Iowa, and Topeka, Kan.
As to the “shots fired” incidents we hear so much about, those are actually down so far this year from both 2011 and 2012.
The mayor pointed out that the perpetrators of these offenses have nearly all been arrested.
Doing most of the arresting, of course, has been the Columbia Police Department. Our city has, the mayor told us, about 1.4 sworn officers per 1,000 population.
That’s significantly below the national average of 2.2 per 1,000 and below any of the four Southeastern Conference cities he chose for comparison. The ratio is even below what it was 10 years ago.
You might conclude from all those numbers that the good news is Columbia is a pretty safe place to live, blessed with an unusually efficient police force.
Mayor McDavid’s conclusion was the opposite. We have an “undersized police department,” he said, and an “incipient gang problem.”
That analysis led to his proposal of a 20–cent increase in the city property tax, producing the $3.5 million a year necessary to pay for an additional 35 officers.
One question, then, is whether the facts the mayor recited justify the conclusion he reached.
Another is whether the police chief we have is the one we need. I ask it because I’ve re-read the Anderson report of a little more than a year ago. Eric Anderson, you may not recall, was hired by City Manager Mike Matthes as a consultant to examine the state of our Police Department.
His findings were devastating. In retrospect, I have to wonder how Chief Ken Burton kept his job.
Anderson found that police morale was “extraordinarily low,” training was minimal, regulations were confusing, even the mission statement was unclear. The most damning evaluation was that “the supervisory culture is approaching toxicity.”
Chief Burton had been in charge since 2009.
His boss, the city manager, described the report as “a wake-up call” and set to work on a plan for implementing the 14 recommendations Anderson made.
Recent turmoil suggests, at least, that all is not yet sweetness and light in the department.
Mayor McDavid on Monday was strongly defensive of both the manager and the chief. He described them both as “all-stars” and said both are regular recipients of job offers elsewhere.
To Chief Burton’s critics, he said, “If you want to fire the police chief, start with recalling the mayor.”
I don’t expect a recall or a firing, but I do think we need some answers before another tax increase goes on the ballot.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.