November 29, 2007 | 7:24 p.m. CST
This story has been updated to correct a figure. The percentage increase of robberies so far this year over 2006 is 13 percent.
In response to an increase in violent crime over the past year in Columbia, Police Chief Randy Boehm said his department plans to add more patrol teams.
“We have noticed a definite spike over the last 30 to 60 days of robberies and ‘shots fired’ calls,” Boehm said on Wednesday. “It’s not unusual for us to see a spike this time of year, but this clearly started a little earlier than usual.”
Boehm’s announcement comes after last weekend’s murder of 55-year-old hotel manager Cynthia L. White at a Comfort Inn on Clark Lane. Police said the 21-year-old suspect, Dwight T. Hayes, is also responsible for a robbery and an attempted burglary earlier this month — both at hotels on Clark Lane.
According to police statistics provided to the Missourian on Thursday, with a month left in 2007, violent crime in Columbia is up 17 percent from last year. The numbers were discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting between the Police Department and city officials Wednesday.
The department listed 537 violent crimes so far this year, compared with 459 in 2006 and 478 in 2005. Violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery and assault. Compared with last year, robberies in Columbia have increased from 113 to 128, or 13 percent.
Police Capt. Tom Dresner said the numbers are “by no means flawlessly accurate” but still reliable. The department’s statistics include crimes through Tuesday, and Dresner said it’s difficult to get complete accuracy with such recent information.
Rick Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said those numbers correspond to a larger national pattern. He said there was a general upward trend in violent crime across the country in 2005 and 2006.
“We tend to also see increases in the smaller places the following year and the year afterward,” he said. “Columbia is not alone. It may simply be lagging a bit.”
Rosenfeld, whose research focuses on explaining U.S. crime trends, said increases in the larger cities were short term, which could suggest that Columbia’s recent rise in violent crime is just that — a spike.
He cautioned, though, that local conditions could be contributing to the rise, which he said he could not comment on without knowing more about Columbia’s dynamics.
Boehm said the additional patrols are a direct response to the increase and will consist of four officers split into two teams. The teams will receive overtime pay for the assignments and will be a mix of plain-clothes and uniformed officers.
The patrols, assigned to selected weeknights, will focus on convenience stores and, to a lesser degree, hotels. Boehm said those businesses can attract robberies because they are often open late and seem to provide an inviting target. After Hayes’ arrest, Boehm said hotels might not be as much of an issue.
“We hope that we have resolved that issue,” he said.
Boehm said that many of Columbia’s recent robberies were committed by a relatively small group of people.
“It looks like we have three or four individuals or groups responsible for most of those robberies,” he said.
Boehm said some of those groups could be described as “gangs.” The police department has been reluctant to call incidents in Columbia gang-related because Boehm said it doesn’t truly reflect the situation.
“Technically, some of those groups could be considered gangs,” Boehm said. “We do have groups of really loosely organized individuals that commit crimes together.”
Boehm said, though, the groups don’t have specified colors or territory that many people associate with gangs.
“It’s very different from what we believe the average citizen believes is gang activity,” Boehm said.
Boehm said some studies have shown that gangs across the country are taking on a more loosely organized structure.
Despite the recent crime increase, Boehm said residents should still feel safe.
“While we’ve had a spike in crime, it’s still a safe community,” he said. “Our clearance rates in solving those crimes continues to be well above national rates.”
Outside the city, there has been no rise in crime, Boone County Sheriff’s Maj. Tom Reddin said. “We’re not seeing the increase at the moment that the city’s seeing,” he said, “but this time of year usually sees an increase in burglaries and robberies,”
Reddin said that the Sheriff’s Department has not changed its patrol schedule but is trying to be visible at businesses to discourage robberies.
For the future, Boehm said his department is trying to identify potential crime trends in Columbia.
“Criminals are creatures of habit,” Boehm said, explaining that many tend to commit crimes at the same time of day or same day of the week.
He said that though the department usually waits to identify those trends before adding extra officers, he decided this recent rise merited extra patrols anyway.
Mayor Darwin Hindman has scheduled a news conference at 9 a.m. Friday at the Daniel Boone Building, 701 E. Broadway, to discuss the recent crime increase. Boehm, Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey and MU Police Chief Jack Watring are scheduled to discuss ways their agencies can collaborate.
— Missourian reporter Alia Bakeer contributed to this report.