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Former Columbia police chief misled council on origin of COU changes

On Nov. 20, Columbia police Chief Ken Burton and City Manager Mike Matthes explained their decision to change the structure of the Community Outreach Unit, an eight-officer unit dedicated to working closely with residents in certain neighborhoods.

Community and city council members criticized the decision, questioning the timing of the move before a report on the program’s future was to come back to the council. The department wanted to take the COU citywide, by assigning one officer to a police “beat” to work in, and rebrand it the Community Response Unit. The unit would also be responsible for patrolling downtown Columbia for certain events.

Burton explained the idea came from one of his sergeants.

“We had a sergeant by the name of Clint Sinclair. He’s sitting in the back room, as a matter of fact,” Burton told the council. “This was his idea. This was his idea, here’s how we can do [community-oriented policing] citywide.”

Sinclair’s memo did not, though, call for any restructuring of the COU, according to a copy of it obtained by ABC 17 News. The idea instead called for a replacement of the Downtown Unit with a new unit called the Community Action Team. Sinclair wrote that the new unit would even work alongside the COU in some cases and specifically differentiated the Community Action Team from the COU.

“This unit would differ from the current Community Outreach Unit, where the Community Outreach Unit focuses on longer term solutions in targeted areas, the C.A.T. would focus on ‘now’ issues city wide, developing prevention and enforcement strategies,” the memo said.

Included on the memo were three members of the department’s command staff, along with Burton.

Columbia police did not respond to numerous requests for an interview on why the former chief claimed Sinclair came up with the changes.

Burton would resign from the Columbia Police Department more than a month later after being placed on paid suspension. City leaders have not said why he was placed on suspension.

Mayor Brian Treece said he had not seen the memo before ABC 17 News showed it to him.

“This memo seems inconsistent with what was described,” Treece said.

The council put a hold on any changes to the COU until the community policing report came back for council review. However, Treece does not expect that report to make it back to council.

“It’s dead on arrival,” Treece said. “The acting city manager has informed us that it would require so many revisions that it would be impossible to meet the council’s deadline and it would be better to just start over.”

The COU has been effective in the three years of its existence. In the 2018 State of the City address, Matthes said violent crime dropped in the targeted neighborhoods by 22 percent. Of the city’s overall drop in crime, 45 percent of it took place in those areas.

However, the unit has struggled to get new applications from officers to work. As of December, only five of its eight spots were filled.

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