Since the year began, the city has seen a dramatic increase in what the Columbia Police Department classifies as violent crime; homicides, rapes, assaults or robberies occur almost weekly.
From January to June, uniform crime reporting statistics show 274 reported violent incidents. The same statistics list 229 for the same period in 2012. In a year, the incidence of violent crime rose by more than 20 percent.
This figure is troubling for the city, said Tom O’Sullivan, a detective with the Boone County Sheriff's Department.
“We generally tend to see spikes in criminal activity over the summer and the holiday,” O’Sullivan said. “(But) some of these shootings have been spread out all over town, and they were occurring (prior to the summer).”
Dale Roberts, director of the Columbia Police Officers’ Association, said he was enthusiastic for an aggressive stance on crime. Such a stance is already held by the sheriff’s department and Missouri State Highway Patrol, Roberts said.
“We’re not talking about conducting illegal stops and illegal searches,” Roberts said. “We’re talking about doing things that law enforcement officers are trained to do, and what the Constitution and the Supreme Court say they can properly do.”
Roberts, a former officer and judge, cited the 1996 case Whren v. United States, in which the Supreme Court ruled that all traffic offenses, given probable cause, are legal grounds for a stop and temporary detainment by law enforcement officers.
“If an officer were to violate somebody’s Fourth or Fifth Amendment rights, the court will throw it out in a skinny minute,” Roberts said.
It is made clear to officers that they have to play by the rules, Roberts said.
Roberts said the city and Police Chief Ken Burton shy away from what they see as heavy-handed tactics in dealing with known criminals, regardless of probable cause.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser disputed the effectiveness of Roberts’s and Sheriff Dwayne Carey’s approach.
“I think that if you look back over our history on crime, you will see that we’ve had spikes in crime under the past two police chiefs,” Nauser said. “And so if they were utilizing the same tactics that the sheriff said we’re failing to do now, then how do you explain those spikes in crime under those leaderships?”
Yet Roberts said that the police department still has one critical vulnerability, and one that may not be fixable by a change in policy: understaffing.
“There are two pieces to this,” Roberts said. “One is not having nearly enough people in the department. Columbia has the lowest officer-per-capita ratio of any city in Missouri.”
That lack of feet on the streets was what Roberts said is most detrimental to the reach of Columbia law enforcement. Excessive overtime, Roberts said, has spread the department and its officers thin. The 34,747 hours worked overtime by officers in 2012 alone, Roberts calculated, could have been used to pay more than 25 officers’ salaries.
“So what that means is that in our budget, taxpayers are already paying for 25 full-time officers that we don’t even have,” Roberts said. “It also means that we’re forcing the officers we do have to do the work of 25 officers that we don’t have.”
That much overtime, Roberts said, can also make already-tired officers less effective when making split-second decisions in a high-speed chase or gunfight.
“You are not in as good condition as you were earlier in the day,” Roberts said. “For 14-16 hours, doing the work they do is not ideal.”
Burton proposed hiring more officers. He requested 38.
In City Manager Mike Matthes’ 2014 budget, the department was given two officers and an additional sergeant, a fraction of what Burton asked.
At a press conference earlier this month, Mayor Bob McDavid unveiled an anti-crime, six-point plan containing a ballot initiative that would, if passed in November, increase property tax by 20 cents. The funds acquired from that tax hike would go toward the $3.5 million needed to hire, train and equip a planned 35 new officers.
“Making Columbia safer is a choice,” McDavid told the crowd. “We can do this. We can do this together, but we’re going to have to pay for it.”
But a week later, McDavid recanted his support for that tax hike, citing comments made at a Columbia Police Officers' Association forum the night prior.
“I pulled my recommendation because the CPOA failed to endorse the tax increase,” McDavid explained. “Asking the community to increase taxes requires a unified, coherent argument. So if we can’t agree in the city how to find it, then it’s not appropriate to go to the citizens.”
McDavid agreed that while crime anywhere is a problem, it’s unlikely that his proposal would not have come to fruition divided public opinion.
“I do think we can take a couple of steps back, and we need to come at it with a unified voice and approach it next year from a broader-based community standpoint,” McDavid said. “Because I think the Columbia Police Department does a wonderful job, but it’s understaffed.”
Among McDavid’s more successful points was the establishment of the Mayor’s Youth Anti-Violence Task Force. Moderated by Nauser and Third Ward Councilman Michael Trapp, the 13-member civilian task force will dedicate itself to reporting on ways to combat violent crime.
The task force, Nauser said, will take some of the crime prevention burden off of overworked CPD administrators, and hopefully provide some relief in the debate between Burton and his “proactive” critics.
“I think we need to take a step back and work together. It’s going to do this community no good to point fingers,” Nauser said. “We should be fighting criminals — not each other.”
Nauser said that while the task force won’t publish its final report until November 2014, there are still ways in the meantime for it to take an active role in anti-crime strategy.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Nauser said, “and I think that if we look at some practices and models that have reduced gang violence and involvement in gangs, we might see some of that activity decrease …. We’re not going to get rid of it, obviously. Crime is a human condition, but we can certainly mitigate it.”