Police, sheriff worried about rising crime; asking for community support, law changes
Public safety officials presented information on crime in Cascade County during a community forum on March 5.
Great Falls Police Chief Dave Bowen said there’s an “alarming trend” of certain types of crimes increasing over recent years.
He said during the forum and during a January Council of Councils meeting that violent crime has increased 173 percent over the last nine years.
Last year, GFPD seized 91 weapons related to crimes. Some of those could have been multiple weapons on a single incident, but that number has also been increasing over the years.
Violent crime in those statistics is all felonies and includes homicide, rape, aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, assault, sexual assault, robbery and more, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter told The Electric.
Bowen said there had also been an increase in assaults on police officers and cases of resisting arrest with 92 of those situations in 2019.
Juvenile sex offenses are “spiking out of control,” Bowen said. Family disturbances and partner assaults are also high, he said.
“That doesn’t bode well for the next generation,” Bowen said.
Mental health calls started rising in 2017, Bowen said, and now averages 3.2 calls daily.
Bowen and Slaughter have been saying publicly for months that the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative that was passed by the Legislature is a significant factor in the spikes in crime locally since 2017.
The initiative was a collection of bills that took jail off the table for a number of misdemeanor crimes, established a pre-trial pilot program, changed the process for revoking people released on probation or parole, among other changes. The stated goals were to reduce pressure on the Department of Corrections and invest the savings into treatment and other programs to keep people out of jail.
Slaughter said the law changes make it harder to take people on probation and parole back to jail for violating terms of their release and they have to commit a new crime to go back.
“The rules are undermining the authority, it’s not working,” Slaughter said. “Now we’re suffering with the longterm effects of it. Dangerous people are on the streets and county jails are full.”
Slaughter and Bowen said they’re pushing to have the 2017 laws changed in order to improve public safety.
“I can’t tell you how damaging that session was to law enforcement,” Bowen said during a January meeting. “I’m sorry, but we missed the boat. It’s not working. This has to get fixed.”
A 2019 assessment of the Montana Department of Corrections’ supervision structure and allocation of offender caseloads found that from state fiscal year 2015 to 2019, Montana had increases in felony-level case filings, the prison population and the supervision population.
The state’s prison population increased 7.5 percent during those years with an annual average increase of about 2 percent over the last three fiscal years, according to the assessment.
“The prison population growth is being driven by an annual increase in prison admissions, which were particularly high for both new court commitments (41-percent increase) and revocations (85-percent increase) between SFY2018 and SFY2019,” according to the assessment, and in fiscal year 2018, the department increased bed capacity by 205 to “reduce the county jail backlog, which accounts for a portion of the increase MDOC has experienced.”
The Electric has asked the DOC about whether the laws are working as intended from their perspective and was told a response would be ready next week.
Bowen said that eight of the last nine officer involved shootings involved people out of jail on supervision. There have been seven officer involved shootings since 2017, he said during a January meeting.
He said that in 2019, 10 percent of calls involved people on supervision. That equates to 4,304 calls, he said. Currently, there are 136 people on supervision in Cascade County with active warrants, Bowen said.
It’s a drain on their resources, Bowen said.
Bowen said that not everyone needs to be incarcerated and there’s a balance with treatment and programs. He said GFPD works with the Center for Mental Health for a crisis response team in an attempt to divert those having a mental health crisis to resources other than the jail.
They also work with Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad for a mental health court on misdemeanor offenses.
The court had its first graduate in December, who is “doing very well still,” Bolstad told The Electric in late January. Another participant is expected to graduate this spring or summer, he said.
“For us, it’s about teaching these folks that when they go into crisis, that they can trust cops so they can help and don’t go into a suicide by cop situation,” he said. “The mental health problems are going to come up,” but it’s learning to deal with the crisis when it happens.
Bolstad said that when he sees people in court on disorderly charges, he’ll ask if he or she was in a mental health crisis at the time. If they say yes, Bolstad said he’ll often work with them and if they bring a letter from a treatment provider proving they’re getting help, he’ll do what he can to dismiss the charges later.
Currently, the mental health court is maxed at 10 participants, but Bolstad said his team is working on a grant to be able to expand the program.
“Mental health in this town is huge,” Bolstad said.
During a January meeting, Bowen said that in 2019, GFPD had 48,680 calls for service and Great Falls Fire Rescue had about 8,500 calls for service.
Bowen said that shows an increased level of activity. They appreciate extra calls to possibly prevent something from happening, but they’re also beginning to enforce fines on false alarms such as repeated calls for problems with alarm systems since those calls chew up time.
Bowen said they’ve also reduced their responses to retail shops for theft and gas drive offs since they can’t respond all the time.
“But if someone calls because they’re seeing something isn’t right, I want that,” Bowen said in an interview with The Electric.
In January, Bowen said, “it’s going to take a community wide effort to turn this thing around.”
There’s also been an increase in felony cases filed at Cascade County District Court.
In 2019, there were 924 felony cases. The judicial system is busy and there are four district court judges.
Slaughter said, “we should probably have five or six judges” at least to handle the case load.
Bowen and Slaughter said they’ve been making changes in an effort to address the increase in crime. Those changes include adjusted patrol shifts, pre-trial risk assessment, a city-county violent crimes task force and partnering with federal agencies to prosecute felonies in federal court where there are mandatory minimums.
GFPD will be rolling out CrimeView in March. It’s a crime mapping website that will allow residents to see crimes occurring in their neighborhoods.
In this year’s budget, Bowen said he’ll again be asking for six more cops.
“That’s where I think we need to be” to be able to answer the calls for service and backfill when officers are injured, sick, on vacation or out for other reasons, Bowen siad during a January meeting.
Slaughter told The Electric this week that he’s planning to ask for more detention officers in this year’s county budget since the jail is understaffed and overcrowded.
He’s also asking the County Commission to split the coroner’s office from CCSO and into it’s own publicly elected office. That would free up time for deputies to focus on public safety, he said.