Editor's Note: Due to time restraints, several questions and concerns submitted by the community were not answered during the town hall. The News Tribune plans on following-up with the panelists to ask these remaining questions and publishing their answers in future stories. If readers have questions for the panelists, they can submit them to [email protected] with "town hall" as the subject line.
Local needs that could improve public safety would be to have a mental health crisis center for children, as well as a court focused on domestic violence, according to local leaders in criminal justice, law enforcement and youth services.
Lincoln University, the News Tribune and KRCG TV partnered to sponsor a Jefferson City Community Engagement Series that kicked off Thursday night with a broadcast town hall event focused on improving public safety in the community.
The panelists were Rod Chapel, attorney and president of the Missouri chapter of the NAACP; Gina Clement, executive director of Capital City CASA; Michael Couty, juvenile court administrator for Cole County; Cole County Associate Circuit Judge Cotton Walker; and former Cole County Sheriff Greg White.
Questions posed to the candidates included the subjects of how national events this year have filtered into local discussions, body cameras for police officers, community involvement in public safety — not just law enforcement — and how to keep firearms out of the hands of youth.
The event was closed to the public in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in addition to digital broadcasts, community members were able to submit questions.
In terms of local public safety needs that panelists highlighted, Couty said Jefferson City does not have a facility where a child in a mental health crisis can be taken for up to 96 hours.
He said SSM St. Mary's Hospital and Capital Region Medical Center work with adults, but children currently have to to Columbia or even further away to the state's largest cities.
"I would hope that in the future, we could get some dedicated beds for youth in Jefferson City," at least a unit between the two local hospitals, Couty said.
Walker also said he would love for the community to have a mental health crisis center instead of immediately sending people to jail.
White said while "we've got to have more mental health treatment available," first responders to calls dealing with violence do require the tools that law enforcement has, and it's not comfortable for a social worker, counselor or psychologist to walk into such a situation unprotected.
Such calls include domestic violence incidents, and Walker said having a domestic violence court or docket has been contemplated, to be able to officer more resources and attention to first-time offenders, but also victims.
Clement said of CASA that "we need people," people who are willing to get involved to help intervene in the lives of children at younger ages to prevent problems later in life.
Chapel said all Jefferson City police officers should be equipped with body cameras — for officers' protection but also to maintain integrity from the public's perspective.
He also said citizen complaints about officer conduct should be taken seriously.
In terms of what happens next after Thursday's town hall, event organizer and LU political science professor Darius Watson said he will review a transcript, create an executive summary and distribute it and a survey to stakeholders including the state's Department of Public Safety, the attorney general's office, Jefferson City Police Department and others involved in public safety.
Those stakeholders will meet in the spring and use the agenda developed through the town hall discussion to create practical solutions.
"I thought it was outstanding," Watson said of the town hall itself. He said all the panelists were fully engaged, at least 150 people were watching just on LU's livestream and "we had real, substantive initiatives" proposed.
In terms of their takeaways that panelists wanted the audience to be left with, Chapel said everyone in the community should come together more and act in ways that respect one another's dignity.
Clement urged people to be helpful in the community and get involved somehow, whether it be assisting families, children or food banks: "There's so much to do." She also said opening up discussion is important.
Couty said parents should not just view juvenile court as a last resort but as a resource they can contact to be connected with other services their child might need.
Walker urged people to vote for public leaders who will value their role as public servants and be proactive in listening to the community's needs.
White said "bad parenting" is the biggest cause of violence by children, though he did not immediately suggest how to approach that.