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Former Columbia police officers remember past community policing efforts

The Columbia city council is set to consider a resolution that would direct city manager Mike Matthes to create a plan to fully adopt a community policing policy, but according to former Columbia police officers, sergeants and captains, there’s been a policy in place for decades.

“We did not just ‘attempt’ it,” said one former officer. “We had implemented community policing and it was in place until [Chief] Ken Burton arrived with something he calls ‘geographic policing.’ I still have not been able to get a definition of that yet.”

According to these former officers, as well as former councilman from the early nineties, community policing existed and took on many forms.

“It has been part of their policing strategies in the past and I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t tell you they’re doing some of that right now anyway,” said former councilman Matt Harline, now city manager for Centralia.

He said he remembers community meetings taking place at residents’ homes and police officers would attend those meetings. He also recalls an officer he took a ride along with once who had such an intimate knowledge of the neighborhood they were in, that he knew which cars belonged on the street, and which ones he’d never seen before.

Larry Schuster was the first ward councilman from 1990 to 1993, serving with Harline for two of those years. He said he remembers community policing as natural in a much tighter-knit community.

“Community policing was natural, you knew people,” he said. “You knew the town was smaller, the community was smaller and you just naturally knew people.”

Columbia Police Officers Association Director Dale Roberts forwarded several responses from former officers Tuesday who remember that part of community policing was based on the Broken Window Theory and was established as 4th Squad in the late eighties. A “flexible unit” stationed in high crime areas, they were enforcement oriented but “also participated in neighborhood events designed to open the communications channels between officers and the skeptical community where they operated.”

While it’s no longer called 4th Squad, the Community Outreach Unit has similar goals, and some officers said Tuesday they felt like current leaders are “reinventing” policies that have already been in place for decades.

“I learned quickly that you had to be nice and able to communicate, to get information from people, even if you were arresting them,” said a former sergeant. “I also have laughed at the various “reinventing” of what we were already doing but I supposed if I was taking criticism from multiple directions, I might ‘come up’ with something new also.”

Schuster said a renewed focus on community policing is important but that alone won’t wipe out crime.

“Crime is a cancer in our community and how we solve it cannot be done with just one new trend, one state of the art tool,” he said. “It’s going to take just a little bit of time and community policing should be part of that.”

If adopted, City Manager Mike Matthes would design “a citywide Community-Oriented Policing program” and present it to council by June 30.

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