City Hall seems disengaged

COLUMBIA, 12/19/12 (Beat Byte) -- Neighborhood association president Hank Ottinger's lack of information about neighborhood watch (story here) is emblematic of a City Hall environment which has seen successful crime prevention programs fall on hard times.

A rash of crime in the normally halcyon Old Southwest has neighbors wondering where to turn for a remedy that seems to have fallen out of favor in Columbia: prevention.

Fighting crime after it happens is well and good, but too often, police fail to recover stolen property or apprehend the perps, especially in low-dollar, low-priority cases.
Prevention, as almost any truthful law enforcement official will admit, is the best medicine.

But as a person long active in preventing crime, I've witnessed a dramatic and disheartening reduction in CoMo crime prevention programs.

Most recently, I discovered city officials replaced a hard fought and long sought "Neighborhood Watch Program" street sign with a much less relevant "Call Crime Stoppers" sign on a central city street.
The city's Neighborhood Watch (NW) program, though operational,is languishing. Long-time NW/police department liaison Mike Hayes was pulled from the program and put on patrol duty before he retired, a fellow officer told the Heart Beat on condition of anonymity.

Though a civilian "board" oversees neighborhood watch, in my involvement with the program I never dealt with anyone but Officer Hayes, its heart and soul.
Mouths were agape at the 2012 Landlords Against Crime summit over an announcement from Columbia police officer Tim Thomason that he is similarly being pulled from the city's 14-year Crime Free Housing program before he retires in about 22 months.

As one of the Crime Free Housing program's co-founders, Thomason is also its sole operator. He had received no information about who will replace him -- or if he will be replaced.
Ironically, Thomason was charged with Neighborhood Watch oversight after Hayes' departure.
Other city crime-prevention/reduction programs have also been scaled back.

The Neighborhood Response Team (NRT) used to have 4-5 city staffers -- building inspectors, police officers, neighborhood service specialists -- walk streets in designated neighborhoods looking for code violations, evidence of criminal behavior, and others ways to reduce crime via the famous "Broken Windows Theory."

But budget battles a few years ago foreshadowed that program's gradual downsizing. Then-Columbia city manager Bill Watkins insisted on expanding NRT's duties without providing additional staff or funding.
Now, NRT responsibility has fallen to Office of Neighborhood Services specialist Bill Cantin, a city employee who tours neighborhoods with neighborhood association leaders and -- instead of police officers and building inspectors -- iPads with GIS and database information.

City Hall's involvement in crime prevention is important for many reasons, notably because city government can provide stability as interest in crime prevention rises and falls.

Getting people interested in crime prevention isn't hard after a rash of break ins; maintaining that interest over the long term is the challenge.