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Columbia City Council to discuss community policing at Monday meeting

Some Columbia City Council members are split on proposed changes to how the police department hopes to implement community-oriented policing.

City leaders have been clarifying the future of the Community Outreach Unit. ABC 17 News broke the story on Saturday that CPD plans to re-hire the team members for the new Community Response Unit, according to an Oct. 25 email from Deputy Chief Jill Schlude. Department and city leaders,have said this week the unit is actually an expansion of the mission the COU started in 2016, moving from four neighborhoods to citywide. The unit size, though, will stay at eight officers.

Police Chief Ken Burton said on Wednesday the department would “go back to the drawing board” if the council did not support the plan, despite the department taking applications for the new unit in October.

City Manager Mike Matthes said he and department leaders came up with the plan in order to bring the city’s current model of community-oriented policing to the whole city.

Second Ward councilman Michael Trapp told ABC 17 News that the changes could have been done with city council and public involvement.

“There’s so much community interest in community policing, and council has been very engaged about this particular issue,” Trapp said. “I do think council and the public should have been brought in to this discussion earlier.”

Trapp said he supported the proposed model. Nobody applied to fill the two vacancies in the north side COU team, Trapp said. The new team, which already has eight applications for the eight spots, would bring two officers to the whole of the Second Ward.

Third Ward councilman Karl Skala, who criticized the proposal earlier this week, seemed unchanged in his opinion.

“No,” Skala said in response to an email asking if his thoughts changed given Burton and Matthes’ comments this week.

Burton said the new model could help attract candidates to the unit, which he said struggled to get officers interested. At a Columbia Police Review Board meeting, Burton said he believes officers “tend to get bored” with the work in the COU due to its specific mission of proactively working with community members to solve problems. By giving the COU patrol duties of downtown Columbia during some events, Burton said he hoped to attract officers back to the job.

“They don’t get any action,” Burton said of the COU officers. “They’re not out there working the street, and they miss it. So they want to go back and do some police work for a while. They want to go in and recover stolen cars and catch burglars and do all the things that police officers do.”

City leaders have touted the drops in calls for service and violent crime numbers in the neighborhoods where COU teams worked. In the 2017 State of the City, Matthes said the team was responsible for “half the drop in crime citywide.”

Some police leaders have said there is an internal dispute between officers in the patrol unit and the COU. A report from Sgt. Robert Fox spoke of a “divisiveness” between the two, with COU officers feeling that their work in reducing crime statistics wasn’t recognized within the department, and patrol officers frustrated “handling call after call then seeing Community Outreach Unit officers at barbecues and hanging out with residents in neighborhoods.” Chief Burton said he hoped the new model will help mesh the patrol officers in a beat with the work the COU officer would do there.

Trapp said he could understand the frustration on both sides of the issue. He said the changes might help fix structural issues within the unit in getting officers interested in the job.

Matthes said on Thursday that the department had eight applicants for the eight spots on the COU.

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