City considering suspension of police advisory board in favor of other outreach programs

Attendance at the Great Falls police advisory board has been bleak and it’s been difficult to recruit and retain members.

Great Falls Police Chief Dave Bowen told the Council of Councils on Tuesday that he’s looking to suspend the board and use other methods of communicating with the public.

The plan to suspend the board has been in the works for months but Bowen said he wanted to discuss the idea with the neighborhood councils to get their thoughts.

The police advisory board was established in 2006 by City Commission resolution and was to include 14 members: a representative from each of the city’s nine neighborhood councils, one from Malmstrom Air Force Base, one from the Native American Local Government Commission, two people representing different minority groups and a youth chosen for their leadership abilities by the Great Falls school district.

Bowen said attendance had been dwindling, various groups named in the resolution were ceasing to exist, Malmstrom officials indicated they didn’t see the value in their participation and he “struggled at best” to recruit members and have attendance at meetings.

“I kept trying to get more involvement,” Bowen said, with little success.

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Since the board was created by commission resolution, it would also have to be formally dissolved by the commission and no formal action has yet been taken.

The Council of Councils meets in January, May and October and is designed to include representatives from each of the nine neighborhood councils, though attendance can be low at their meetings as well.

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Bowen said since the board was created in 2006 the department has added a number of other outreach programs including the Citizens Academy with about 650 graduates, a volunteer program, quarterly visits to the neighborhood councils and other programs.

“So we’re not losing those avenues of communication,” Bowen said.

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The police department has been short-staffed lately and Bowen said he’s working to maintain strong community communication while balancing policing needs on the streets.

He said the department had a record number of retirements last year around the same time, one hire didn’t make it through the probationary phase, some officers have moved or been elected to public office.

Bowen said he’s lost a number of core functions and is down 11 sworn officers. Some new officers have been hired but have to complete training at the law enforcement academy and locally before they can operate on the streets solo. That process takes months.

One of the positions impacted by the staffing was the Business Residential Involving Community, or BRIC, officer.

Bowen temporarily suspended that position since officers were needed in other positions.

The Business Improvement District and Downtown Development Partnership both sent letterso Bowen expressing concern about the loss of policie presence in the downtown, though GFPD is still patrolling the area and other teams are maintaining a presence.

Bowen said he’s planning to meet wiht the groups in February to discuss his decision to temporarily suspend the BRIC officer and the realities currently facing the department.

He said his department is trying to staff all of the quarterly neighborhood councils but in some cases the officers who would normally attend had to be on patrol.

GFPD is in the process of hiring and Bowen said their new web-based recruitment push resulted in double the number of applications.

Eric Ray, chair of Neighbor Council 5, said attendance at the council of council meetings is “damn poor in my estimation” and it may not be worth it to have Bowen or other officer attend the meeting if council delegates aren’t there to get information to bring back to their councils.

“I don’t need to meet just to meet,” Bowen said, but was looking for ideas on the best ways to share information about policing activities, crime trends and other issues with the community.

He said the department is looking at creating a crime map on the city website using their new software that will let them drill down to the neighborhood council areas. It may not be a perfect function, but it’s a start, he said.

Bowen said the recommendation to suspend the advisory board came from several neighborhood council representatives and he was concerned that the move could be seen as pulling back from the community but “that’s not what we want.”

He said GFPD wants feedback and has experimented with other ways of reaching the community such as Coffee with a Cop and a table at the farmer’s market.