All six positions on the Columbia Police Department’s new Community Outreach Unit have been filled.
The department has been working to staff the unit to improve community relations and combat crime in problem neighborhoods.
Officers Justin Anthony and Antonio Parker have been working in the Community Outreach Unit since April.
Officers Gamal Castille, Matt Rodriguez, Phillip Shull and Scott Lenger were selected to fill the remaining positions in the unit.
“We had nine applicants,” said Sergeant Michael Hestir, who oversees the Community Outreach Unit. “We then invited some members from the community to be part of that interview panel. So we conducted the interview with input from community leaders.”
The community leaders on the panel included David Thomas, Christopher Haynes, Lorenzo Lawson, Seth Bauman and Mary Ratliff. Additionally, Toni Messina and Steve Hollis from the City of Columbia (not the police department) helped.
“The plan is to design and implement this unit with transparency,” Hestir said. “Our mission is to open lines of communication and rebuild community trust, so having an interview panel comprised mostly of community leaders seemed a logical step.”
He said the next step is to start training both in-house and off-site.
“I’m going to share documentation with them, the President’s report on 21st century policing and the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence report,” Hestir said.
He said the officers will be assigned to particular neighborhoods and will still respond to calls for service. But Hestir said it’s about more than just that.
“Additionally, they’ll get out to meet the community members, the neighbors, the people who live there and try to start establishing a rapport so that not only can we respond to police incidents, but maybe we can identify problems that some of our community partners could be called in to mitigate or alleviate,” he told ABC 17 News.
Some of the community partners involve organizations and people who can help with addiction or substance abuse problems and even help people find employment.
Hestir said he believes the Community Outreach Unit will also help ease the workload of patrol officers.
“What they’re going to do is respond to police calls in their assigned neighborhood areas,” he said. “That will free up patrol officers for the rest of our surrounding beat area and give officers more discretionary time, lessen their workload.”
He said the four officers selected for the unit will begin the transition into their new roles in early to mid-February.