By Dennis Minich
Drugs, burglaries and homeless people were the main topics of conversation when various members of the Harrisonville business community met May 22 with police officials.
Harrisonville Police Chief John Hofer and several members of the department were on hand at the police station to listen to concerns and address issues faced by businesses and by individuals in the community. There was no formal exchange, instead the officers mingled with those in attendance and listened to their concerns.
Problems with homeless individuals was one of the first topics many of the visitors addressed. Shawna Brewster, owner of High End Used Furniture on Vine Street, talked about the number of homeless wandering in the Vine Street area. She said her business was broken into during February and someone had tried again recently.
Brewster’s concerns were then shared by Sue Hilton, the financial manager, and Joe Barron, the community resources specialist, at Casco. Hilton shared that earlier this month, someone was going through cars after hours in the Casco parking lot and when confronted, drew a knife on Barron.
Lt. Chris Osterberg, who listened to the stories, emphasized that contacting the police is the best things people can do.
“This is more than a homeless issue, the is more of a criminal issue,” Osterberg said. “This is not the Harrisonville of 20 years ago. Back then, when I started here, the sidewalks rolled in about 9 o’clock. Now there are businesses open 24 hours.
“What’s most important is when you have issues is to contact us. No matter how little or how insignificant or silly it might seem to you, it is important to us.”
An often-familiar refrain was repeated.
“Keep your doors locked on your cars, on your businesses, on your homes,” Osterberg said.
Hilton noted homeless people used to dig through collection boxes outside the Casco facility. Recently, the facility changed and more secure storage is used.
“We would come in and there would be clothes scattered everywhere and we would have to pick them up,” she said.
Osterberg said such acts are usually homeless people looking for the best clothes which they can take and sell.
“They are looking for anything they can find to sell so they can buy drugs,” Osterberg said.
According to him and other police officials, the number of resident homeless in the city has remained steady through recent years, number under a dozen. However, there has been an influx of transient homeless.
“Most of them probably stay three days or less,” Hofer said.
Osterberg said the key difference in the crimes is the homeless tend to look for something to sell quickly, while the criminals are looking for higher-end items and know what they are looking for. Although there have been some high-profile crimes, like the recent burglary at Yesterday’s Guitars, Osterberg said the number of actual crimes is not up significantly.
“We are seeing an increase in property damage, where people may have tried to break into businesses, but that doesn’t rise to the level of a burglary or robbery,” Osterberg said.
Many of these crimes simply end up in municipal court and those which go into the state courts often end up with the suspects being released almost immediately.
“Law enforcement shares your frustration in that regard,” Osterberg said. “But there’s not much we can do when we arrest someone and they might be out of jail before we even get the report finished.”
One case often cited by local officials is the case of a woman arrested for allegedly hitting four pedestrians while driving while intoxicated. Three of the four were injured including two receiving life-threatening injuries. She only had to post a $1,000 bond to get out of jail. It was also noted she has not yet appeared in court, but has reportedly moved from the area.
There is concern new sentencing guidelines announced by the Missouri Supreme Court might make keeping criminals in jail even harder. The guidelines, named Rules 21 and 22, set new standards which might make holding suspects easier at first, but keeping them will become more difficult.
Hofer said, “Law enforcement in Cass County is already concerned about bonds and we are worried this is just going to make things worse.”
State Rep. Donna Pfautsch was in attendance at the open house and said the new guidelines are being studied by members of the legislature.
“These changes weren’t made by the legislature and there is some concern about the courts making these changes,” she said.
One area businessman said he came to the meet and greet simply to show support for the local police. Jeff Sefton, owner of Butler Music, brought gift cards from a local fast-food restaurant to say thanks for the police department’s efforts.
“I have had businesses in a number of cities through the years and this is the best police department I’ve ever worked with. I’ve had several times when I get to work and there is a little tab on my door saying that they had checked out business. That means a lot to me,” Sefton said.