Special Report: Traffic Unit U-Turn

Traffic Unit U-Turn

COLUMBIA, Mo. - The Columbia Police Department has changed certain priorities over the last year.

It was fall of 2015, when ABC 17 News discovered the department was eliminating its traffic unit.

CPD is stressing that it still monitors and polices the city’s roads, only re-prioritizing to make way for community outreach.

That shift in policing may be having some unintended public safety consequences.

Jasmine Coates-Buckner and her two children had quite a scare this past Halloween night, as they joined the hundreds of other people this year involved in a crash on Interstate 70.

Jasmine says, “My car jerked around. My kids hollered, screamed, cried. I was shaken up (…) I have to call 9-1-1.”

She says the emergency dispatcher said someone was on the way but they didn’t know how long it would take for the police to arrive.

According to Jasmine and dispatch reports, that emergency call was made around 4:12.

Jasmine says, “4:12, came to 5:12. 5:12 came to 6:12. 6:12 went to 7:12.”

She tells me a Columbia police officer never showed leaving her and her children alongside the interstate for four hours. Jasmine says, “For me to be on the side of the highway, even if me and my kids didn’t have visible injuries that’s so dangerous. It started to get dark. A semi could have veered off and hit us or anything. It was just very unsafe.”

When the police department announced it was eliminating its traffic unit, Mike Matthes said traffic was less important “in the scheme of things.”

On November 20, 2015, Matthes told ABC 17 News "We really focus on the folks behaving badly. That means speeding tickets are not a priority. If we're out driving and we happen to see that we'll enforce the law, of course, but it's just less important."

And the numbers bear out the proof of that.

According to documents obtained from Columbia Municipal Court, in 2014, CPD along with MUPD filed 6772 traffic cases. The caseload dropped to 3839 in 2015. In 2016, the caseload is on track to drop to around 3,590 cases.

ABC 17 News discovered this isn’t a trend that’s developed over the last few years. In 2010, the number of municipal cases filed was 13,758. The remarkable drop happened as the city grew by 9 percent.

Either Columbia drivers have just become better behaved, or fewer police means more people are getting away with traffic violations. Columbia Mayor Brian Treece considers it a public safety issue. Mayor Treece says, “Our officers are spread thin. At some point during the day we only have seven or eight officers on duty. And when you think about the volume of calls coming into 9-1-1, they have to prioritize those calls.”

Even when police aren’t responding to emergencies, it can take a while to get to your problem.

Treece says, “I’ve talked to some police officers that when they come on duty there’s 20 or 21 calls pending that they have to start chipping away at.”

And, since the department shifted priorities…city revenue has dropped. Not by a little, but by a lot.

In September of 2014, municipal court revenue from fines was around $74,531.75. For September of 2015, it dropped to $52,082.80. And in September of this year, without a dedicated traffic unit, the figure dropped again, this time to $27,813.17.

Compare those numbers to a Missouri city of comparable size. The revenue for in the same category for the same month in Independence, is $287,248.50.

Mayor Treece is quick to point out that fees and fines is not the way to pay for new additions to the police force. He says, “Municipal courts are never intended to be a revenue generator for city government. I mean, that was one of the contributing factors to Ferguson, Missouri.”

But the mayor says he does see the falling revenue as an indicator that his city’s police force needs help and he says, “I do think that’s something we should be concerned about.”

That concern is shared from City Hall to CPD. The department currently has 19 open police officer positions.

CPD’s public information officer, Bryana Larimer, says “Police is changing and that’s not just specific to Columbia. That’s nationwide. Police officers are facing a lot of difficult situations…consider the police shootings that have occurred across the nation, and there’s just this elevated fear in becoming a police officer.”

Add to that, recent findings about a morale issues at CPD.

Larimer says the department is “working to address the low morale issues.” She also says she’s talked with other departments in the nation that are also having the same problem with low morale. She says, “We are looking at that. We are talking to our officers to see what their needs and desires are.”

An obvious need is more men and women in blue.

Mayor Treece says, “People like their police officers. They just want to see more of them.” He also says the city was able to add four new officers this fiscal year, and he’s optimistic CPD will be able to add 2.5 more officers before the end of this fiscal year.

As for Jasmine’s crash concerns? She says a CPD officer left her a message saying he would have an accident report to her by Friday, 18 November.

She says, “It was very important for me to have that police report. I didn’t know (if I was) supposed to sit on the side of the highway eight, ten hours with 2 young kids waiting for the police to come so I can get a police report? It’s just not fair.”

The police department urges residents to use its website to report non-violent crimes and most non-injury crashes. Here is a link to that site. Of course if it's ever an emergency -- call 9-1-1.


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