Mayor, city manager weigh in on how they would use new officers

Tuesday, August 13, 2013 | 4:07 p.m. CDT; updated 10:29 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Officers James Meyer, Scott Hedrick and Jamie Dowler search a car for narcotics during their patrol of Beat 20 on Aug. 3, 2012, in Columbia. The mayor proposes hiring 35 more officers to proactively patrol communities.

COLUMBIA — Mayor Bob McDavid suggests hiring 35 more police officers. City Manager Mike Matthes says the city can afford only three at the moment. Police Chief Ken Burton has asked for 30 over the next five years.

If Shakespeare were writing about the Columbia Police Department, he might ask, "What's in a number?"

The mayor, city manager and police chief all have said that the Police Department is understaffed. But as the community has faced three homicides and two public shootings over the course of three months, the city has responded with a task force that intends to look at the fundamental causes of crime while the police are expected to deal with the immediate effects using the officers at their disposal.

At their current staffing level, officers are spending most of their time on the street responding to calls rather than "proactively patrolling" the neighborhoods they cover, police spokesman Sgt. Joe Bernhard said. 

"Right now they're just reacting to the crime and not getting to work on the underlying issues that cause that crime," he said.

While the new fiscal budget proposes the addition of three new hires for the department, city officials have said there is simply no funding to support hiring more. If the community wants more officers patrolling its streets, it will have to pay for it.

"That's the interesting thing about Columbia," said Matthes, the city manager. "Everyone agrees that our police force is without question significantly smaller than almost every other city you could find, especially any city our size."

"So you have to ask, 'Is that OK?' or do we want more?"

This month, Mayor McDavid proposed adding a ballot measure in November that would raise property tax by 20 cents to pay for 35 new officers for the Columbia Police Department. 

It would take $3.5 million in new property-tax revenue to fund McDavid's request.

The mayor said he based the figures on a request made by Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton more than two years ago.

Bernhard said Burton had submitted a request to the city in 2010 for 42 new positions, including sworn officers and civilian staff. The chief did not make a request for new positions in 2011 for lack of available funding sources.

This year, Burton requested funding for 30 additional officers over the next five years, Bernhard said.

Matthes, whose budget proposal for fiscal 2014 includes funding for two new officers and a sergeant, has said that the city has been increasing the police's budget to account for inflation, but the additional funding has been used to pay for the police officers' pensions.

"There's a massive cost impact, so much so that there's no new money," Matthes said.

In September, the Columbia City Council approved changes to the pension plan for city employees, including police and firefighters. As part of the change, police and firefighters agreed to lose their 401(a) match for current and future employees. At the time of the pension change, it was projected that the city would save an estimated $43 million over a period of 20 years.

Matthes said he hopes that by the fourth year of the pension change, the city will have saved enough money to add a new position to the Columbia police every year over a 10- or 15-year period.

How big should a police force be?

Bernhard said the department is budgeted for 161 sworn officers but is now staffed with 157 officers, which includes eight officers in training. 

McDavid said Columbia has 1.45 officers for every 1,000 residents and the addition of 35 new officers would bring the city closer to the per-capita average for cities with similar populations.

Comparing the size of one community's police force to a similar community is not an effective way to make a decision toward staffing, said Tracy Phillips, senior project specialist for the International Association of Police Chiefs.

Every community has different patrol needs based on the geographic layout of the city and its infrastructure, Phillips said.

"Ready-made, diversely applicable staffing standards don't exist," she said.

The International Association of Police Chiefs consults with police departments, including assistance with determining staffing needs and exploring alternative methods for policing with available staff.

Determining the appropriate size of a police staff needs to come from city officials deciding what they want to accomplish and what they can afford while seeking the input of the police department, said Joseph Brann, law enforcement consultant, retired police officer and the first director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services of the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I feel very strongly we can be far more efficient and effective in policing across the country, but too many law enforcement agencies make the mistake of asking for more resources without first examining whether their current staffing can be better deployed and managed," Brann said.

Why do we need more police?

Additional staff would give Columbia's police officers a better chance of equally dividing their shift three ways — responding to calls; administrative work, such as filing reports; and "proactive patrolling," Bernhard said.

Proactive patrolling allows officers to spend more time providing services to the residents and business owners on their beat, he said.

This year, Capt. Brian Richenberger, head of the patrol division, produced an analysis that indicated that more officers would help meet the objective of expanding the division's proactive patrolling to one-third of the officers' time.

Based on the average amount of time an officer responds to a call and the number of times additional officers are required, Columbia would need between 19 and 30 more officers in the patrol division to approach this goal, Richenberger found.

In the meantime, the police have had to come up with ways to patrol and protect the city with the resources that they have.

"A lot of agencies are finding that full-service policing is not sustainable," Phillips said. "They have to find new ways of meeting the public need, but doing it more efficiently."

Columbia's Police Department created an initiative called Mission One to allocate more resources toward proactive patrols, where sworn officers not assigned to the patrol division can devote 10 percent of their time to "hot spots" that have been troubled by crime.

"It is a strategy that allows us to affect an area that's having a lot of problems or focus on a particular issue," Bernhard said.

In another implementation of proactive strategies, Columbia police recently completed a three-day sweep with local, state and federal agencies to make more than 200 traffic stops, 60 check subjects and an estimated 40 arrests, which included a murder suspect in a June shooting on Conley Road.

"That's why you partner up," Matthes said. "That's why you ask for help from your friends. They have resources we don't."

How would new officers be deployed?

Matthes said that the police prioritize calls for service based on the seriousness of the situation and that more officers would reduce waits after calls.

"We'd love to provide the kind of service everybody wants, where if you call us, we'll be there immediately to help you," Matthes said. "We do not have the capability to do that today. We have to give that level of service to the most scary calls."

Matthes said he does not want the ballot measure to explicitly reserve the new positions for specific tasks, as the needs of the city are likely to change.

Based on what he sees as the city's current needs, he said he would like to establish a full-time gang unit and add resource officers to Columbia's middle schools.

The city manager also pointed to "community-based policing at the neighborhood level," where officers would consistently cover the same area to build a better relationship with residents.

The mayor said he hoped some of the additional staff could increase police presence on the streets. Incidents like the June shooting on Tenth Street and Broadway are indicative of a police force that is short-staffed, McDavid said. 

The June shooting occurred on a weekend when the Columbia downtown police unit was off-duty, according to an email sent by Capt. Jill Schlude after the incident.

Mayor McDavid cited two officers in the Douglass Park area who became a consistent presence after violent incidents in that neighborhood as an example of good community policing. They have been accepted by the residents of the Douglass Park area, he said.

"It's that kind of relationship you can develop if you have enough officers," McDavid said.

If the property tax increase makes it onto the November ballot, the residents of Columbia will have the final say on how important paying for additional officers is.

"The community will decide what it wants," Matthes said. "We will still work very hard to keep this community safe; it doesn't matter the outcome."

When asked about the consequences of not adding to the force, Bernhard said, "Things would pretty much stay the same."

"I love the mayor's metaphor … we're playing this baseball game without a third baseman and without a right fielder. We're still going to play hard, but we were coming at it with a disadvantage," Matthes said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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