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Community Safety

Chief Williams on Annual Report, Staffing Shortages, And Perception of Violent Crime

Scott Harvey

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams says 2014 was a better year for combatting crime while managing a force that is operating below its desired capacity. He also shares that issues like domestic violence continue to be an area of concern, but is pleased with his department’s relations with the community.

The Springfield Police Department recently released its 2014 annual report, which not only breaks down yearly crime data, but highlights other day-to-day work and various personnel items.

In 2013 the department had its most reported crimes in the city’s history. For 2014, the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) showed a 12 percent drop in overall reported crime. Chief Williams says the most significant reduction was that of burglary, which went down 21 percent.

“It’s unheard of. One-fifth of all burglaries reported the previous year were not reported this year. So that means people are feeling safer in their homes.”

He credits the decline in strong investigative work and community engagement, noting an increase in community policing.

“That’s people knowing what goes on in their neighborhoods, knowing their neighbors, and when they see something out of place or suspicious they call us.”

Also down last year were reported sexual assaults/rapes, by five percent. Auto thefts, meanwhile, rose 15 percent in 2014. And there were 16 homicides last year, four more than the year before.

The UCR documents serious Part 1 crimes; or the top seven crimes in the city. You have to go beyond those figures to break down cases of domestic violence, an issue that has risen in Springfield by 20 percent since 2012.

“50 percent of our [2014] aggravated assaults are domestic related. Almost 60 percent of our regular, simple assaults are domestic related. And they’re much more prevalent, the ones that don’t result in serious injury.”

The problem is nothing new to Springfield police, which two years ago established the Family Violence Task Force. The department has since, in partnership with various community organizations, held two Stop the Violence conferences, and targeted repeat violent offenders and got help for their victims, 85 percent of which are women.

Despite a growth in domestic violence cases in the first part of 2014, Williams says the last quarter produced fewer cases in two of the three months.

“It’s slowing. So I’m really anxious, you know we’re following this year to see if that trend’s gonna continue and we’ve hopefully crested and we’re starting to go the other way.”

Despite optimism on the domestic violence front and an overall decrease in crime in 2014, past figures in Springfield have at times cast the city in a negative light. One report last year ranked Springfield the most dangerous city in America.

“Every one of those I’ve looked at has something wrong with it,” Williams says.

Outdated crime data, a failure to use all of the data, or even counting all crimes as equal are reasons Williams doesn’t put much stock, if any, into these rankings. A better way to identify crime data and trends, he says, is by asking the police department directly or accessing its crime mapping tool, BAIR analytics, online.  

In 2014, the department’s Inspections and Internal Affairs Unit (IIAU) investigated 103 cases. That’s on par with the previous year, Williams said. 20 of those were either External Class I or Class II complaints, and involved 30 employees. Examples of external complaints are lack of service, improper procedure, bias-based policing, excessive use of force and discourtesy.

Two officer-involved shootings were investigated, one in which an officer improperly discharged his firearm at a fleeing unarmed suspect. Jason Shuck told authorities that he meant to use his Taser when he shot Eric Butts on May 9 near the Walmart Neighborhood Market along South Glenstone Ave. He is no longer with the department. In October, Shuck pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. As part of a plea deal, he avoids jail time and a criminal record if he completes two years of unsupervised probation.

Williams says that aside from complaints, 466 letters of compliment were received in 2014.

“Pretty good ratio. 4:1 compliments versus complaints,” he said.

Responding to complaints is one piece to the community relations pie. Williams believes the police department’s dialogue with the public is strong, and was evident in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson. He noted positive community discussions and peaceful protests that have occurred.

But he admits that the police department has some catching up to do when it comes to employing more minority officers, and being more reflective of the community it serves. Currently, about four percent of Springfield’s population is African American.

“We have two [black officers] now and we have at least one in the academy now and more in the application process, so maybe we’re gonna build those numbers up,” Williams said.

Five years ago, there were zero black officers on the Springfield Police Department. There’s also a need to raise its number of female officers, currently at six percent. Williams would like that number to be reflective of the national average, or about 13 percent.

Williams notes that the highest quality applicant will be the one hired. But in terms of recruiting, more effort is being made in areas where the department lacks diversity.

Overall staffing numbers are also a point of emphasis. The department is operating with 21 fewer officers than desired. There are currently 331 sworn officers, roughly 20 of which are trainees that qualify as authorized strength. That, plus balancing any turnover in the department, equals about 300 people actually able to work at any one time, says Williams.

“We have to carry vacancies somewhere. It’s very much a chess game in figuring who’s gonna be short. I try to staff our patrol staffs first… which means that some of our investigative units or extra units such as planning and research and training academy work shorthanded throughout the year.”

Recent receipt of a COPS Hiring Grant will help the department some, which will allow for the addition of another 10 officers later this year.

Outside of the 2014 report, Williams cautions against concerns over an apparent abundance of violent crimes. He notes that several of those cases occurred outside the city in nearby communities.

Within the city, he told KSMU last Friday there had been five homicides so far this year.

Williams wants the public to understand many of the violent crimes are not random violence.

“It is violence between people that know each other. That doesn’t make it any less tragic, but it should give that sense of security to people that, okay, these were two people in a bad domestic relationship or these people were involved in criminal activity together and one of them shot the other one or stabbed the other one. It’s not the general public being victims of crime like that.”   

Last month, Officer Andrew Bath shot and killed an unarmed suspect named Michael Ireland following a foot pursuit. It was Bath's final week with SPD, as he had previously turned in his resignation.  The department is conducting an internal investigation and will turn the results over to the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office for review.

Another notable story so far this year is the January shooting of Officer Aaron Pearson, who was struck in the head and is continuing his recovery at an Atlanta hospital.

Above, listen to our complete conversation with Chief Williams, which also addresses the Neighborhood Watch Program, the department’s change in crash response tactics, and the new Community Video Surveillance Project, among others.

The Springfield Police Department’s 2014 Annual Report can be viewed here.

Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu