Skala, CPD hold safety summit

CPD outlined its new geographic policing strategy.
Columbia Police Department officer Mike Hayes, left, helps Capt. Stephen Monticelli, right, hang maps of trending crime rates during the Safety Summit on Thursday at Blue Ridge Elementary School. CPD invited the public to discuss personal safety in an open public forum.

Two robberies and a recent spike in petty crime and gang activity spurred Columbia police and a City Council member to hold a neighborhood safety summit Thursday night at Blue Ridge Elementary School.

Columbia Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said there is a sense of unease about a recent rise in criminal activity in his ward.

Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton sought to ease those concerns and said he is working to implement a geographic policing strategy, in which officers and commanders would be responsible for specific streets and neighborhoods. Burton said the system would increase accountability among officers when major crimes occur, but the plan could take 12 to 15 months to implement.

Burton also said it is important for officers to be familiar with the residents they serve so residents will feel comfortable reporting crimes to officers.

"Police officers that work in that community should be part of that neighborhood," Burton said.

Skala said he sees two kinds of people in the Third Ward: the "hunker down" people who try to escape crime by staying indoors and the "I'll do it myself" people who confront criminals themselves.

"Neither approach is the right answer because we really need people to help out the police," Skala said. "If we have anything, it's fantastic human resources."

CPD Patrol Commander Brad Nelson, who oversees all police activity in the northern half of the city, said the department needs help from citizen groups, such as local chapters of the Neighborhood Watch Program and the American Homeowners Association.

"We need cooperation from all types of people in the neighborhood," Nelson said. "I'd rather have people call the police and report suspicious activity."

Using large color maps of crime hot spots in the city and the Third Ward, Nelson said violent crimes in 2008 were down 10 percent from the total CPD reported to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004. He said the perception of a rise in crime was the result of intense media coverage of specific events.

"Sometimes people's perception of crime is not what it really is but what they hear from neighbors and see in the media too," Nelson said. "Columbia is actually a very safe city for its size."

The department also distributed handouts with tips on preventing vehicle theft and other petty crime. One handout detailed the new Nuisance Party Ordinance, which CPD will use to force landlords to take action against tenants who gather large groups of intoxicated or destructive partygoers.

Burton said it was too early to determine whether CPD needs more officers or how many more the department needs. He cited the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, a project done by the Washington-based Police Foundation showing more officers did not necessarily decrease crime in an area. Burton said once the geographic policing strategy has been fully implemented, CPD would be able to determine exactly how many officers it needs.

Third Ward resident Jeff Johnson said residents could reduce juvenile crime by talking to children about their home lives and problems that motivate them to commit crime. Rather than continue meetings about possible programs to provide alternative activities, Johnson said he wanted to start putting some of those programs into action.

"What can we do as a community to keep kids out of crime?" Johnson said. "I want to be part of the solution, part of something positive."

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