COLUMBIA — Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas wants to get the community talking about how to fix the Columbia Police Department.
He has drafted a resolution calling for a formal process to gather community input about policing. The resolution proclaims the need to engage various community groups to share their feedback on safety and morale within the department, community policing and the size of the department's staff. The Columbia City Council is scheduled to discuss and vote on it Monday night.
If the resolution passes, the council and members of the former Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence would arrange the engagement process, which would gather input from a variety of community members. Stakeholders could include Police Chief Ken Burton, Columbia police officers, the Columbia Police Officers Association, residents of neighborhoods with and without high crime rates and organizations specializing in race relations and community-oriented policing.
Thomas hopes the engagement process would help the city determine whether the police department should implement citywide community-oriented policing and how the city could support such a program. The process would end with a final report and recommendations by Nov. 30.
"I see the engagement process involving a planning process for three months to six months and then some kind of event happening," Thomas said. "I think the event could be a series of evening forums on particular policing topics or an all-day event on a Saturday like the Affordable Housing Symposium in 2015 or the Homelessness Summit we had last year."
Thomas' proposition comes in the wake of challenges with police understaffing, low morale among officers and allegations of racial profiling. In the draft resolution, Thomas refers to recent studies that found Columbia police had 30 to 50 fewer officers than similar cities.
Thomas asserts that there are several times a day when every on-staff officer is out responding to emergency calls. The average number of officers on duty in Columbia is 12, and these officers must serve a 65-square-mile city, according to the draft resolution.
The resolution also highlights the findings of the city's 2015 "Work Force Engagement Survey" and a 2016 survey conducted by the Columbia Police Officers Association. The 2015 survey showed the police department had the lowest morale rating of all 15 city departments, and 78 percent of officers who responded to the 2016 survey said their morale had fallen over the past three to five years.
"I would like the community to learn about how stressed police officers are," Thomas said. "I've done ridealongs with officers where they are rushing from one call to another, like from a robbery to a drug deal to an alcohol-related incident."
Thomas wants officers to be able to dedicate more time to getting to know the communities they serve.
"Currently, officers spend all of their time responding to calls," he said. "I think officers should spend one-third of their time doing community outreach, like meeting business owners, residents, teachers and students in the areas they police."
The resolution also cites the Missouri Attorney General's 2015 "Vehicle Stops Report," which discovered racial differences in Columbia police's traffic stops and searches. The findings raised questions about whether police had engaged in racial profiling or carried implicit biases. Thomas would like the engagement process to further examine the findings from the attorney general's report.
"We need to understand what the data means without making knee-jerk reactions," he said.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said she believes the recommendations made by the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence, which disbanded in November 2014, may have served as a springboard for Thomas' proposed resolution.
"One of the recommendations the task force made was the need for community dialogue," said Nauser, who chaired the task force with Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp. "Mr. Thomas has been passionate about moving forward with this recommendation."
Thomas said the task force's purpose involved examining violence in the city and making suggestions for more effective policing. The city council's job then was to take the lead on implementing the recommendations.
Among the task force's other recommendations was implementing community-oriented policing across Columbia. The police department is conducting a pilot project on community-policing strategies in three neighborhoods, and at its Jan. 3 meeting the council accepted a $500,000 federal grant to hire four more officers.
Mayor Brian Treece, whose campaign last year emphasized the need to hire more police, could not be reached for comment.
"My long-term vision for policing in Columbia is that we have an adequately funded Police Department and, more importantly, that it's fully supported by the community," Thomas said. "I would like to have low crime and have police officers doing community-oriented policing."
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