Chief Burton addresses community policing, understaffing with mayor's task force

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 | 10:35 p.m. CDT; updated 12:02 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 10, 2014

COLUMBIA — Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton spoke about community policing to the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence at its meeting Wednesday.

Burton said understaffing is preventing the department from shifting to a community policing model. He said the department currently has 65 to 70 officers, but requires 90 to adequately handle regular patrolling and administrative tasks related to calls for service, based on current data.

To run the department on a community policing model that would give officers discretionary time, Burton said he would need a force of 135 members. Currently he only has the manpower to implement community policing in limited situations.

"This is the part that should break your heart," Burton said. "When we tell officers to go downtown and build relationships, we have success. But we have such limited resources that we can't duplicate that everywhere."

Burton acknowledged that while ideally he would like 50 or more new officers, that probably won't happen. However, he said every new officer hired would alleviate the pressure put on the department.

"I'm not naive. I'm not going to get 50 cops tomorrow. It's not going to happen," Burton said after the meeting. "Even if the mayor had the money, it's not likely I'd get them all, and the reality is we don't have the money."

Compounding the problems caused by understaffing, is the fact that fewer candidates are qualified or even applying. Burton said applications are down, but he hopes lowering the required number of hours from an accredited college from 60 to 30 for those with military service will help attract new people.

"We have had a struggle with training officers," he said.

Burton agreed community policing models aren't right for only Columbia; they're right for every community. Officers being reactionary instead of proactive means they aren't preventing as much crime as they could under a community policing model, Burton said.

"They get there, they defuse the situation, and all they have time to do is say 'OK, I hope this doesn't flare up again,'" Burton said. "We lose our meaningful citizen interaction. We're running when you need us most."

Task force members reacted positively to Burton's presentation, and appreciated his offer to come back at a later date. Task force member Tyree Byndom said the vibe in the room was different compared to the previous meeting the department presented at in September.

"That was a presentation from someone that wasn't just pitching," Byndom said. "He understands the reality of his department. I thought that was important. He shared the good and the bad."

Taking action

The task force also made its first official recommendation at Wednesday's meeting. Members unanimously approved the task force would make the following priority statement in relation to the city's consolidated plan:

"The City of Columbia and those operating on behalf of the city should make priority efforts which directly target the reduction of violence in the City of Columbia. This priority shall apply to funding decisions including but not limited to state and federal money."

According to the city's website, the consolidated plan serves as a community dialogue to help the city assess its affordable housing, community development needs, market conditions, and to help it make data-driven, place-based investment decisions.

Spiritual empowerment presentation

The task force also heard from members representing the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, an international program that fosters youth engagement in community growth and development.

While the program is based on the Baha'i Faith, it has been used by public school districts. One of the presenters said he implemented the program in St. Louis public schools and saw youth have increased interest in bettering themselves and their community.

The task force did not make an official recommendation on the program, but Co-chair and Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said he hoped to discuss it at the task force's upcoming work session on April 26.

The task force has one more regularly scheduled meeting on April 23 before that work session.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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