Citizen-run crime prevention programs in Columbia lack participation

Citizen-run crime prevention programs in Columbia lacking

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Recent numbers show crime in Columbia is a concern. In 2013, homicides were as high as they have been in the last five years. Rapes rose 57 percent from the year before and total crime overall went up.

Shootings, robberies and assaults are happening in public areas, like downtown. Many are pointing at police, saying they need to take back the streets and get the crime problem in Columbia under control.

But some involved in the fight on crime say it's also time for the community to step up.

Greg Reed is the president of Columbia's Neighborhood Watch Board. The program began in 1970, but five years ago it was turned over from police to a private board because of budget cuts. Since that time, the program has had some challenges.

"Ever since the police department cut us off, basically, we've really struggled in terms of just having enough money to do what we need to do," Reed said.

And he said those things they need to do are increase training sessions and pay for advertising to reach more areas. His hope is that advertising would boost participation, which has dwindled.

There are currently five vacancies on the nine-person board and Reed said it has been that way since he joined in 2009.

He said the commitment would be small if more people got involved and it could make a huge different in cutting crime.

"The main goal is preaching that involved citizenry can make a difference in crime rates and in the community, especially when you're dealing with the manpower issues we have here for CPD," Reed said.

Melvin Buckner, the Columbia police officer assigned to advise the city's Neighborhood Watch, agrees.

"The community has to embrace the concept of being a community again," Buckner said. "We have to start taking care of the area where we live and care about the area where we live."

Buckner said the neighborhoods with college kids could be helped almost right away.

"We all know most of our burglaries are occurring in college housing areas and that's an area we haven't really explored that far in," he said. "I think with additional funds, with some advertising funds, we could get out to the college area and maybe make an impact there."

Neighborhood Watch meets the second Monday of every month for one hour. Reed said because the board is lacking people, he and the other three board members are having to pull double duty just to keep the program afloat.

"You can only do that for so long, you know?" Reed said. "We all have work, we all have jobs, we all have careers that take precedent over your role on a board like this. It's so important for the community, it is sometimes disappointing we don't have more engagement there."

Neighborhood Watch is not the only citizen-run program in Columbia designed to curb crime.

The mayor appointed a task force on community violence in the summer to respond to recent crime. So far, only one of the 10 meetings has had perfect attendance.

Numbers obtained by ABC 17 News show since late October, only about 80 percent of the board members made the meetings. At the most recently scheduled meeting, not even half showed up, and without a quorum, there was no meeting.

"I think on an administrative level, we could be doing a better job as far as reminding people in a timely fashion, making sure it's on the radar," said Ward 2 councilman and co-chair of the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence Michael Trapp.

Trapp said the recent lull in attendance has had a lot to do with the winter season.

"I think the task force-- that was just kind of a blip, as far as winter, lack of routine and competing demands, and I think that's going to resolve itself," he said.

The task force is a group of 15 citizens that meets twice a month. By August, it's supposed to have some solutions for violent crime in the city.

Trapp said at the next meeting, he plans to remind the members of the commitment they made.

He also said he wants to remind the rest of the community that there are things they could be doing to help.

"Crime is not going to be solved by the government," Trapp said. "It's going to be solved by all of us in our community. We're going to make our community safer, or we're not."

Whether community members officially join Neighborhood Watch or just become more aware, Reed says that is enough to make a difference in crime.

"Know what's normal for your neighborhood, because if you saw a police officer drive by right now, he wouldn't know what's normal for this neighborhood, but you do," he said. "You, on that local level can tell what sticks out and what's right."

To become a member of Neighborhood Watch, citizens can register for a training session on their website.

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