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SPECIAL REPORT: Columbia Police Department smaller and funded less compared to forces in similar cities

Another summer filled with crime is winding down in Columbia.

In the last three months, one family lost a teenaged son to gun violence and there have been 10 other shootings within city limits. Nearly all of those shootings happened in busy, public places.

The public continues to ask, “Where are the police?” and city leaders agree they do not have enough officers on the streets.

But how many does Columbia need and how will the city pay for them? In a special report, ABC 17’s Evan Millward explains how catching up could take decades.

“Right now, we simply don’t have the time,” said Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton. “They’re going from call to call to call, on several [calls] during several hours of the day. So we find ourselves in the position now where we are looking for things that we can simply just stop doing because we don’t have the resources to do all of the things the community wants us to do.”

The community continues to wonder where were the police the night a viral video captured gunshots at a busy downtown intersection.

The answer from Burton at a citywide news conference shortly after the shooting: The downtown police unit had worked several weekends in a row and had that specific weekend off.

“It’s difficult with limited resources because these officers need their time off, they need their downtime with their families and it’s difficult to give it to them with all the demands on us,” said Burton.

That helped expose how understaffed the police department claims it is.

By its own measure, the department is down six officers right now with a total police force of 154 officers.

That is fewer than one and a half officers for every 1,000 residents.

ABC 17 News checked departments in cities similar to Columbia to find how their police departments measure up.

Norman, Okla., has 2,000 more residents, but 50 more officers. Its violent crime rate is also one-third the rate of Columbia.

Springfield, Ill., has 4,000 more residents and 90 more officers, but its crime rate is almost triple.

Of the six cities compared to Columbia, all of them had more officers, even South Bend, Ind., which has 13,000 fewer residents.

All of the other police departments’ budgets were bigger, as well.

“I can assure you, I have squeezed every turnip there is in the budget. We have squeezed everything out of it,” said Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes. “So we have two choices in front of us. We can grow incrementally or it’s going to have to require a new revenue source if we want to do much of anything serious about growth.”

Matthes also noted the department’s budget has increased. However, if it’s not for additional officers, where has the money gone?

Both Burton and Matthes blame the city’s pension system.

“Unfortunately, we also made a bad decision in hindsight 20 years ago, 15 years ago, about the pension and so we made that slightly better and it had this huge impact 10 years later,” said Matthes.

Pension problems were dealt with by the Columbia City Council last summer. It means there will eventually be more money in the budget.

“What I suggest we look at is making a commitment to add four to five officers every year for the next four years,” said Burton. “That’s the least painful way. The money’s still got to come from somewhere.”

“I really don’t think we’ll see three or four,” said Matthes. “I think we’ll see one or two. It’s all about money. If we could afford more officers, we would.”

“I think what we need to do now is decide what type of police department we want,” added Burton. “If you want a police department that just answers 911 calls and just does the duties related to 911 calls, that’s where we are right now. If you want a police department that does all the things, like community policing and building relationships in the community, we’ve got to add some cops.”

How exactly will that happen? Mayor Bob McDavid proposed a property tax hike that never even made it out of council chambers.

Some kind of tax is the answer most city leaders seem to prefer.

“I’m not sure we can do it without some kind of tax increase, but I’m just a police chief not a city manager,” said Burton.

“We don’t have money laying around,” Matthes said. “I know some people think there is [money] when they read the budget.”

Not all of the police department research turned out negative. Of the six surveyed cities, Columbia’s crime rate is the third-lowest, with 476 violent crimes in 2012.

“That’s why when one extra murder happens, we freak out, we get worried about it, right, and that’s good, that’s why we like to live here,” Matthes said. “I’d hate to live in a town where that’s not a concern.”

Chief Burton said his 160 officers responded to more than 72,000 calls for service in 2012. Each one of those calls takes up to 50 minutes on average.

Also, the problems facing Columbia leaders are happening across the country. In Gainesville, Fla., — one of the cities ABC 17 News surveyed — officers say pension cuts are making it difficult to hire quality officers.

In Norman, city leaders have a little more than a year before they have to renew a police sales tax.

Burton told ABC 17 News he is looking at ways to better use the officers he already has.

One idea is to bring in civilians for crime scene investigation and public information roles. Another plan already in the works is moving minor property crime reporting to an online form.

Article Topic Follows: News

ABC 17 News Team


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