Columbia Police explores alternative ways to respond to calls, keep officers engaged in the community.
This comes as the department is facing what Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook calls an “alarming” number of vacancies within its ranks, and an overburdened workforce.
Holbrook told WIS in an interview on Wednesday that recruiting has gone well, but retention has been an issue.
“Our departures have been what has been problematic, we’re just kind of trading punches and we’re not cutting down our number of vacancies at the rate we would like to.”
Columbia Police currently has 98 vacancies and is down about 25 percent of its total workforce.
In 2023, 14 officers departed the department, five of which left for jobs with other law enforcement agencies.
Holbrook presented the staffing numbers, along with some proposed recommendations, to Columbia City Council at a budget workshop on Tuesday.
Those staffing struggles, though not unique to Columbia Police, are putting a strain on uniformed officers, who are overworked and have little free time, according to Holbrook.
“So we want to look at ways that we might be able to reduce that demand so where they do have a moment to kind of breathe every day,” he said.
The ideal workload for officers, Holbrook said, would be if they spent one-third of their time responding to calls, one-third writing reports, and one-third on free time, which could be spent out in the community.
Currently, Columbia Police officers spent more than 90 percent of their time responding to calls, according to a recent study commissioned by the department.
“The problem that I see with our current staffing if we don’t improve is it’s not sustainable,” Holbrook said. “We have the mental fatigue, physical fatigue, people are just tired. And so we’ve got to do things smarter, and figure out some things that we might be able to take off our plate.”
To ease that workload, the department began conversations surrounding its calls for service, and how it could provide more flexibility to officers.
Columbia Police is considering outsourcing some tasks, such as mental health transports and responding to non-injury car crashes, to third parties.
Statutorily, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department is not required to handle wrecks.
“If it’s not anything that is drugs or domestic violence or high theft or something of that nature, I would definitely say outsourcing might be the way to go,” Lamona Gantt, who lives in Columbia, said.
The department also aims to modify an ordinance that would change the way it responds to alarm calls from residential and commercial security systems.
It would set up a graduated fine system, and after a certain number of false alarm calls, Columbia Police would stop responding to an alarm dispatch at that property.
Columbia Police responded to more than 11,000 alarm calls in 2022.
95 percent of those calls turned out to be false alarms.
“We have to change that behavior,” Holbrook said. “People have to take ownership of correcting, you know, if it’s human error, correct that. If it’s a technical error, correct that. So if we could knock that down in half, that is that much more time that our officers are able to be proactive.”
The next step in the process for the false alarm ordinance, according to Chief Holbrook, is for the department’s legal team to construct one.
It would resemble the one that has been in place in Charlotte for several years, he said.
National data tracks with Columbia Police’s findings. Ninety-six percent of alarm system activations happen when no crime has been committed, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
All these efforts aim to give officers more time to be out in the community.
“Over 90 percent of the time, all they’re going is from call to call to call, which gives them little to no time to engage the public in a way that is what we’re known for,” Holbrook said. “We’re very community-police oriented, and we’re not able to engage like we need to.”
Holbrook said he believes this would lead service quality to improve as well, despite the fact that staffing and retention have not impacted service delivery.
“You call us, we’re going to be there,” he said.
It would create more time for “proactive police work,” as Holbrook described it, which includes getting to know people in neighborhoods where officers regularly patrol.
“We think just the customer service will be better, the product that we’re delivering will be better,” he said.
Holbrook credited a new pay plan, implemented in October, that has helped with recruitment and retention.
Eight officers took the oath of office last Friday, according to a Columbia Police spokesperson.
The neighboring Forest Acres Police Department, which recently had a number of retirements, is currently down about 22 percent of its workforce.
Forest Acres Police Chief Don Robinson sent WIS a statement on staffing, which reads, “We are working hard to get back to full staff as soon as possible – we’ve made three new hires in the last 60 days. Because Forest Acres is a safe city that maintains some of the highest wages for law enforcement, we’ve always been a department where many officers made their careers here. In the last year, we had officers with 25, 30, and 40 years of tenure with us retire.
Those retirements came at a time when there are fewer cadets graduating from the police academy. Fortunately, we have incredible support from our city council who have done everything to make us as competitive as possible in the current market. Despite being down manpower, our current officers have helped us achieve a large reduction in crime. We remain grateful for their dedication to our community.”
As of Wednesday, RCSD said it was fully staffed.