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City Beat: Police ‘cry for help’ passed on to council

SPD investigates alleged officer comment

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A north Springfield apartment manager brought allegations of dissatisfaction among rank-and-file police officers to the public comment portion of the Springfield City Council meeting Sept. 20.

Ben Brown, who lives outside of Springfield, introduced himself to council as manager of an apartment complex on East Norton Road. According to Brown, officers want residents to intercede on their behalf with council.

The problem, according to Brown, is severely low staffing numbers that are insufficient to combat high crime.

At past meetings, council members have stated the Springfield Police Department is short of its full staffing level by 70 officers.

Councilperson Craig Hosmer offered the figure at the Aug. 23 meeting, when he suggested retirees could be hired back “at a time when we’re almost 70 officers short.”

In an interview Sept. 21, SPD spokesperson Jasmine Bailey said police numbers are low, but they’re not that low.

“Technically, we have 40 vacant positions,” she said, adding that council just allotted $250,000 for the department to launch a search to fill those positions.

The SPD website states the department has an authorized strength of 362, and the department’s annual report for 2020 said there were 335 sworn officers employed.

Crime also is high in the city, as compared with national statistics. SPD’s 2020 Crime Report, based on numbers from the FBI’s National Incident Based Reporting System, showed 25,458 total offenses, including 5,840 crimes against persons, 16,861 crimes against property and 2,757 crimes against society. In 2020, the city experienced 15,043 crimes for every 100,000 in population.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2018 Uniform Crime Report, available on the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce website, shows the number of violent crimes against persons is 562.6 per 100,000 people in Springfield, against a national average of 368.9 per 100,000.

Brown described conversations with officers and detectives and also offered what he said were direct quotes from officers stating that they don’t have the manpower to address crime.

“There is some disconnect between the police officers and the top brass because they’re saying that to citizens, and if they’re saying that to citizens, to me, that’s a cry for help,” Brown said. “They’re basically begging guys like me to go to City Council and say, ‘Hey, help us out.’”

Brown said police do not respond to minor violations like car break-ins, trash bin diving, illegal dumping and similar crimes. 

Bailey clarified that for property crimes such as vehicle break-ins, people are asked to file a report online or come to a station for help in doing so. They can also make a direct request on scene for a supervisor, she said.

In his comments to council, Brown directly blamed Chief Paul Williams, who has been at the helm of SPD since 2010, for the problems he described. He quoted an unnamed detective who allegedly advised him, “Talking to anybody at the Police Department won’t help. You need to talk to City Council. Until we get rid of Chief Hug-a-Thug, nothing will change.”

That comment has sparked an internal investigation, Bailey said.

“The things that are alleged to have been said do not align with the mission and values of the Springfield Police Department,” she said.

Bailey called the Chief Hug-a-Thug moniker “extraordinarily inappropriate.”

She said, “That’s one thing that will be looked into to figure out who that officer was.”

Councilperson Craig Hosmer acknowledged policing is a difficult job. 

“I think that most Springfield police officers are trying to do the best job that they can. I know that they’re understaffed, and I think that they do a pretty good job under trying circumstances,” he said.

City Manager Jason Gage said in an upcoming study session set for Sept. 30, council will have a chance to look at statistics for up to 20 years of crime in the city.

“I think what you’re going to find is that your increase isn’t quite what you think it might be,” he said. “There’s been quite a lot of crime for quite a few many years.”

Councilperson Abe McGull said the staffing problem has also been ongoing.

“We didn’t just wake up this morning and find out that we had a shortage of 70 officers,” he said. “This has been a problem that has been growing. In fact, if we had been down 10 officers, I think it should have been brought to council’s attention.”

Gage said the force had been operating without adequate jail space for a long time, and that impacts enforcement strategies. He said the Police Department had not had full access to a jail for two decades, and officers’ hands were tied for enforcement.

A new jail is under construction, with estimated completion in 2022. That facility will have the capacity to house 1,244 inmates, up from 709 currently.

Other council action

  • Council heard an update on the selection of a team to design and construct the Grant Avenue Parkway project, a 3.3-mile pedestrian- and bike-friendly corridor that will run along Grant Avenue from Sunshine Street north to the Jordan Valley Park downtown.

This was the first reading of the proposal to accept the best-value proposal from the GAP Collaborative Team, which is led by Radmacher Brothers Company Inc. of Pleasant Hill.

Paula Brookshire, the city’s principal engineer for Public Works, described the design-and-construct proposal process that was used for the first time by the city for the $26 million project.

The project will be funded primarily by a $21 million BUILD grant, a federal grant for transportation projects. Additionally, the city will provide nearly $2.9 million from its eighth-cent transportation sales tax and its quarter-cent capital improvement sales tax, and City Utilities will contribute $2.7 million in funding.

“When we applied for this grant back in 2019, we know that it was a highly competitive grant and that there would only be a few communities who would receive this funding, so we were really thrilled to receive this grant and to be given the opportunity to make this kind of investment in Springfield,” Brookshire said.

Council will vote on whether to accept the GAP Collaborative Team’s proposal on Oct. 4.

  • Council heard the first reading of an ordinance to purchase property at 2131 W. Kingsley St., adjoining its newly purchased Fieldhouse Sportscenter. The 2.33-acre property is owned by 4G’s Investments-C LLC, which currently maintains rentable storage units on the site.

The cost of the purchase was included in the measure to purchase the Fieldhouse Sportscenter at council’s Aug. 23 meeting, and the purchase price of $630,000 was folded into that ordinance. Now, the details for the purchase have been worked out, according to Bob Belote, director of parks.

Belote said the purchase is important for any future expansion of the Fieldhouse, which can be doubled to accommodate eight full-sized courts. At that point, Belote said, it would be a true anchor facility for sporting events.

Council will vote on the purchase at its next meeting.

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