Redesigning downtown to reduce transient traffic

While the Business Improvement District and other groups are working to beautify and market downtown Great Falls, the downtown Safety Alliance has been working with the Great Falls Police Department to make the area less inviting to troublesome activity.

Adam Hunt is the Business Residential Involving Community, or BRIC, officer for the Great Falls Police Department.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what’s going on downtown,” Hunt told about 30 downtown business owners and employees during one of three sessions on downtown safety in June.

“We are in this together,” he said.

Hunt wanted to do the presentations to help get everyone on the same page about what’s happening downtown.

His first order of business was reviewing when to call 911 and that’s when life, limb or property is in immediate danger.

Hunt also suggested that if you’re going to call the cops on someone downtown, don’t tell them you’re going to call because then the person usually leaves before cops can get there.

It’s also helpful to give dispatch as much information as possible and “we need you there to make the complaint,” if you want cops to do something, Hunt said, since Montana is a complainant state.

Hunt said to call for suspicious behavior when it just doesn’t look right, or JDLR. Everyone generally has an idea of what’s going on in their neighborhood and when things seem amiss.

Restored holiday decor, other beautification efforts coming to downtown

Times to call the non-emergency include cold cases, non-life threatening events like fender benders. There’s also an option to report crime online for smaller things and when you want something documented but don’t need an officer to come take a report.

But he also wanted people to understand that GFPD won’t always need to collect evidence or send evidence to the state crime lack for misdemeanors since there’s already a backlog for major crimes.

“We are not CSI Miami,” Hunt said.

Other common misconceptions include panhandling, which is considered a first amendment right so long as it’s on public grounds.

Panhandling on private property, however, is prohibited, as is solicitation from the roadway, which is a traffic offense.

Public intoxication is also not illegal, but selling alcohol to people who are drunk is not allowed.

Most of the people panhandling downtown are not actually homeless, but are trying to get cash for beer and/or vodka, Hunt said. There are genuine homeless people in the city and county, but they generally live in camps tucked away out of sight and aren’t the same folks panhandling downtown. Most transients downtown have a place to stay and make money. They are not panhandling for food, but for alcohol, he said.

How does Hunt know this?

“While I’m writing them a ticket, I’m having a conversation. I want to learn about them.”

If panhandlers are on public property, there’s not much to be done about, but if they’re on private property, or otherwise causing trouble on private property, Hunt advised business owners to call the police to have them trespassed. That puts the person into the GFPD system, so all officers know if a person has been trespassed, and that information is also shared with the county, Hunt said.

Tips to curb trespassing include posting no trespassing signs, ample lighting, video surveillance and eliminating places that transients like to hand out.

Those places include public benches, alcoves in buildings, under hedgerows, trees, shrubs, rooftops, alleys, etc., Hunt said.

When it comes to public benches, Hunt said they can’t do much more than ask people to move along if they’re sleeping on those benches, but Hunt and the downtown business community are working together and with city planning to remove some of the benches in problem areas.

Benches were removed around the south parking garage, at Hunt’s recommendation, and that removed a transient hot spot. Hunt has also advocated for moving benches to private property so owners and police have more leeway in reducing loitering.

One of Hunt’s priorities downtown lately has been encouraging businesses and property owners downtown to trim trees and shrubs since some transients will make nests and stay there all summer. One of those spots was around the Great Falls Public Library where the maintenance staff had to kick people out every morning and clean up after them. Removing bushes along one side of the library has reduced the problem, Hunt said.

Other creative solutions have included turning on the sprinklers on the grassy area near the Great Falls Rescue Mission parking lot where people were sleeping. The sprinklers have deterred further public snoozing in the area, Hunt said.

Hunt has also worked with the fire marshal at Great Falls Fire Rescue to block a fire escape ladder that wasn’t needed but transients were using it to gain roof access to a building around the 500 block of 1st Alley South. Hunt said he’d seen a person fall off that roof and walk away, a situation that was more than likely drug or alcohol induced.

The big picture, Hunt said, is to remove or redesign areas used by transients downtown to encourage them to move along. GFPD is also increasing foot and bike patrols downtown.

GFPD conducting “high visibility enforcement” on 10th Avenue South

“We want to make downtown an uncomfortable place to drink openly and panhandle,” Hunt said.

Want to stay informed? Attend Business Watch meetings or Neighborhood Council 7 meetings. Hunt said he only sees 4-5 people at those meetings regularly and encouraged downtown business owners and residents to attend.