COLUMBIA, Mo. - The City of Columbia Strategic Plan 2016 to 2019 is only in its sophomore year, but it’s never a bad time for a progress report.
In an ABC 17 News special report, we checked in with some of the people behind the plan, and whether or not it’s making a difference.
Cory Crosby started life in Columbia, with the odds stacked against him. Crosby said, "I grew up pretty poor. I grew up in foster care. I was abandoned."
Seeing no opportunities for a future he said that instead of going to work one day, "I was going to rob a convenience store." He was convicted of first-degree robbery and spent eight and a half years in prison.
When Crosby got out of prison he decided to get his life together and open a business in Columbia. There was a problem. Since he's a convicted felon, his license application was rejected by the city. He refused to give up, appealed the decision and got the attention of City Manager Mike Matthes.
Matthes said, "We were part of the problem and we didn’t realize." He says the city was denying a fresh start to the very people who needed it.
Crosby won his appeal and opened his gym and personal training business in 2016.
Matthes says helping people like Crosby covers two of the strategic priorities: economy and social equity. Public safety, infrastructure and operational excellence are the other priorities in the plan.
Public safety is often at the top of everyone’s list of what they expect from the city. Most residents know Columbia is dozens of officers shy of the average number recommended for a city of its size. Matthes said Columbia has 167 sworn officers, when it should have around 200.
ABC 17 News asked Matthes if he thinks the police department has too much command staff. He said, "I don’t think the police department has too much command staff. Our problem is you have to have a certain amount of management to operate any function, and they have the minimum to do it."
City spokesman Steve Sapp said adding officers isn’t as simple as it sounds. He said, "What are the ancillary positions we need to support those police officers? So, if we add additional officers, that means they have additional fleet vehicles. So, we may need to hire additional fleet mechanics. They file additional reports, so we may need additional records clerks."
Despite the smaller than desired officer count, Matthes is still a firm believer in community policing. He said, "We got these tremendous outcomes we’ve already seen in one year in the three strategic areas. In those areas 911 calls have gone down. There are fewer aggravated assaults. There were fewer rapes. There were fewer property crimes."
Matthes and Sapp provided the report on which the city based those crime statistics. That report was compiled in February. It shows some of Matthes’ claims to be true, but presents a mixed bag on other issues.
According to the unified crime reports for January through September, aggravated assaults in the entire city are up from the previous two years. Rapes have increased, as well. Property crimes have increased from last year but are slightly lower than in 2015.
Despite the data, many resident agree there are still too many shootings and other gun crimes in Columbia. Matthes said although the gun crimes may seem random, and are certainly a concern, nearly all them involve drugs and suspected drug dealers. He said, "Being a drug dealer for example you have a massive target on your back. Everybody knows that you have cash and the drawings so you’re this amazing target, and you’re probably going to get killed."
That doesn't’ satisfy everyone’s concerns about violence.
As ABC 17’s Lucas Geisler recently reported, homicides in Columbia hit a 12-year high, and the number of unsolved homicides is growing.
Matthes put some of the responsibility back for those numbers on the community, or more specifically, on uncooperative witnesses: people who know what happened and with whom, but just refuse to talk to police.
He called it "the biggest problem we have." Matthes also said, "I’m proud of our department. (They) Resolve a greater number, greater percentage of crimes than most cities. What keeps us from making arrests in two of the homicide events we’ve had this year, where we haven’t made an arrest yet, and the reason is that no one involved will talk to us. Our detectives are not omnipotent, right?"
Sapp said employment plays a vital role in all aspects of the strategic plan and pointed out that Columbia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But, he said there is a another important component regarding employment. Sapp said, "We see too many families having to work two, sometimes three, jobs just to make enough money to support their family. So, when they’re doing that, they’re not able to spend that quality time with the family. So, they’re not able to help their children with homework. They’re not able to get their children to school events. They’re not there to parent and discipline and so forth because they’re simply out there trying to make a living to keep the lights on, to keep a roof over their head and to keep food on the table."
While the city said it is continuing to work to see the strategic plan exercised, Crosby continues to run his business and pull himself up and out of poverty and life on the other side of the law. He said, "It’s about what we choose to do with what we’re given. You know, we can make an excuse out of anything." Instead, Crosby said he lives by a motto clearly posted in his business: “No fakin’, no fear and no excuses.”