Public safety is the first and most important role of local government. Therefore, we need to recognize and respond to the fact that the Columbia Police Department currently faces serious challenges that are hindering its ability to provide optimal protection to the community. These include a staffing shortage, low officer morale and communication issues.

The only way we can address these complex and inter-related threats to public safety is to come together as a community of families, businesses, police officers and institutions, and have an honest conversation about the kind of policing we want. I believe we will all agree on the importance of having a properly-resourced police department that is respected, trusted, and supported throughout the community. After that, we will have to decide on an overall philosophy for policing in Columbia and how to pay for it.

Several recent studies have estimated that the department staffing levels are 30-50 officers lower than comparable cities. While Columbia's population has been growing at 2-3 percent for many years, the City has failed to add police officers at the same rate — in part due to falling sales tax revenue. Compounding this problem, annexation and low-density development have expanded our city footprint to more than 65 square miles — a massive coverage area for a police force that averages just 12 patrol officers on duty at any time.

Our staffing shortage is evident in several ways. The department experiences a condition known as "status zero" multiple times per day, meaning every on-duty officer is engaged in responding to emergency calls for service and the next call either goes on hold or pulls an officer away from an active case. As a result, Columbia police's average response time for emergency calls for service in 2015 was more than 18 minutes — by far the longest of 30 benchmark cities and three times longer than the average of those cities. And last year, when the City Council asked Chief Burton to implement a "community-oriented policing" pilot program in three neighborhoods, he was forced to dissolve the Traffic Unit in order to free up officer time for the proactive outreach and relationship-building work that characterizes community-oriented policing.

Unsurprisingly, officer morale is low. In the City's 2015 Work Force Engagement Survey, the police department reported the lowest morale of all 15 departments. Further, 78 percent of officers surveyed by the Columbia Police Officers Association in 2016 reported that their morale has deteriorated in the last 3-5 years. Contributing to this distress and increasing the danger for police officers over recent years is a sharp rise in racial tension and violence between community members and police across the country. In order to respond to the concerns driving local unrest, it is essential that police and community leaders work together to understand and address the Attorney General's 2015 "Vehicle Stops Report" data, which show racial disparities in the department's traffic stops and searches, and may indicate implicit bias or profiling.

One of the communication challenges we face is to prevent the conversation from descending into "binary thinking." This is not a conflict between the community and the police, and no one has to choose whether to support anti-racism efforts or law enforcement. It's about Columbians coming together to build the kind of city in which we all feel safe and to support our police officers who are charged with keeping it that way. Although effective communication between trained professionals and the public about complex issues can be hard, it is at the center of the solution to all of these challenges.

In 2014, the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence called for Columbia to adopt a comprehensive community-oriented policing philosophy and program — a call which has been repeated by several other groups. The distinguishing feature of community-oriented policing is a partnership between police professionals and neighborhood residents in which the two groups work together to deter criminal activity and to solve crimes quickly when they occur.

I recently had the opportunity to visit community-oriented policing programs in Gainesville, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee, and to speak with police officers and community leaders. My lasting impressions are that officers are excited about their work, they believe they are contributing to systemic improvements in their communities, the vast majority of residents "have their back," and crime levels are low. I also learned that these programs require an authentic community engagement process and higher staffing levels than we have in Columbia.

The task force also recommended the City host "an annual forum involving neighborhood organizations, churches, public schools, CPD, Family Services Division and other interested parties to address crime, social need, and discrimination in our community." With that in mind, I have worked with my colleagues Laura Nauser and Mike Trapp (who co-chaired the task force) to develop a resolution declaring the need to conduct a "Community Engagement Process about Policing in Columbia" that addresses staffing levels, officer safety and morale, and community-oriented policing, and directing the City Manager to provide staff support and other resources. Our goal will be to engage a broad range of community members and organizations in planning a public event or series of events which will include educational presentations, facilitated small-group discussions, and visioning.

The resolution will be discussed and voted on during Monday's City Council meeting. I hope you will get behind this effort to support our police officers and to promote public safety, equitable economic development and overall quality of life in Columbia.

Ian Thomas represents the Fourth Ward on the Columbia City Council.

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