Mental health, crime focus of multiple agencies

Crime is a concern in most communities and in Great Falls, it’s again become a focal point of conversation for government officials.

Most acknowledge that local crime rates are concerning, but many will say it’s a more nuanced conversation with more complicated solutions than simply adding more law enforcement officers.

Mental health, poverty, substance abuse and trauma are factors, and once in the criminal justice system, law enforcement agencies are overloaded and have limited resources to do the kind of proactive preventative work they want to do, the court system is backlogged and the jail has struggled with chronic overcrowding for years, nor do most officials believe it should be a holding center for those in mental health crisis.

Now there’s a confluence of circumstances renewing discussions about those broader issues and finding solutions for reducing crime rates.

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Chief Dave Bowen of the Great Falls Police Department announced his retirement in January and his last day is April 2.

The process of selecting the next chief has involved listening sessions with officers and civilian employees at GFPD to discuss what they want in their next leader, but it’s also exposing more of the department’s challenges, needs and concerns, according to City Manager Greg Doyon. The process will also involve meetings with community groups and citizens.

Changes are also being made to how the department reviews complaints and in January, Doyon told commissioners that he was working to diversify membership to the internal complaint review board at GFPD that review complaints against officers. That committee membership is selected by Doyon in partnership with the police chief.

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In December, the city settled with Aaron Dale, who was arrested in September 2020 and filed a complaint against the city in federal court alleging excessive use of force. Settlement funds came from the city’s risk-pooled indemnity coverage from Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority.

The city settled for $85,680 and “while the city does not routinely comment on personnel matters, I can convey that the officer’s actions in this matter were addressed pursuant to the city’s personnel policy and corrective action was taken,” according to City Manager Greg Doyon.

There are two bodies that oversee officers, the internal body and one appointed by commissioners, which reviews applicants and appeals for disciplinary actions.

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Several years ago, Bowen suspended the police advisory board, which struggled with membership and attendance.

An effort is also underway to create a Crisis Intervention Program, with Alluvion Health taking the lead.

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There have been similar programs and efforts in the past, but not all have been comprehensive community wide efforts had some have failed to secure funding.

To be successful, according to Alluvion, the program “must be multi-faceted and multi-tiered, comprehensive in its services and coordination, and effective in its ability to manage, monitor, report and follow-up, both to the clients it serves and the agencies that participate.”

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The Cascade County Commission voted during their Feb. 23 meeting to sign on to the project as a stakeholder agency.

Josh Racki, Cascade County Attorney, supports the project and during the meeting, Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that “we are incarcerating a lot of people suffering from mental health crisis, we need to divert that.”

Racki and Slaughter had worked previously to establish a pre-trial program for those with minor offenses to stay out of jail on various levels of community monitoring, but no funding came together for that effort and commissioners didn’t commit any tax dollars to the effort.

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The jail, Slaughter said, is not designed to hold those in mental health crisis and the padded cell was torn apart by someone in a mental health crisis, costing about $20,000 in repairs.

“We owe it to our public to do a better job,” Slaughter said.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said that he hopes the project works because, “what we’ve got is not working.”

There may be some community resistance to the program as some agencies already have established crisis response teams, specifically the Center for Mental Health, which has worked with area law enforcement to respond to those in crisis and help divert them from jail, according to Trista Besich, Alluvion director.

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Alluvion officials will be presenting the program during the March 2 City Commission work session and all three GFPD division captains will attend in support.

“This project charter brings a series of community partners together to work at a systematic level formally develop and refine a comprehensive plan for crisis intervention, improved crisis care, and increased access and coordination of mental health care services,” according to Alluvion’s presentation during the Feb. 23 county meeting. “The project’s overall goal is to increase alignment of mental health prevention and intervention strategies so that mental health crisis and co-occurring disorders are diverted from law enforcement and judicial outcomes and wellbeing is increased.”

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Capt. John Schaffer of GFPD said that if commissioners approved working with Alluvion, the program would support the Municipal Court’s mental health court program, support the crisis response team and that Alluvion would ask the city to have a part-time mental health officer at GFPD.

The GFPD has applied for grants and tried other methods of creating the part-time mental health officer to support the city’s mental health court and better serve those in mental health crisis, but were not successful in those efforts for funding.

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Schaffer, with Dusti Zimmer, who was then a social worker at the Center for Mental Health and other officials at the center established the initial crisis intervention program and crisis response team several years ago. Zimmer now works for Alluvion.

Mental health related calls can take up significant time for officers who are not always the best response to a person in crisis.

Schaffer said that they’ve been averaging 4.36 mental health calls daily.

“That keeps us hopping,” he said.

In late January, City Commissioners held their annual priority setting meeting, which city staff use to develop the city budget based on commission priorities.

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Commissioners came up with few specific priorities during that meeting, but Commissioner Rick Tryon said he wanted to create a panel to study crime in the community and how to address it.

Doyon encouraged Tryon to first meet with the three captains at GFPD to gain more understanding of their realities before pressing forward with the panel and that meeting is set for Feb. 24.

During the commission’s Feb. 16 meeting, Doyon said that he suggested that since in his listening sessions about selecting the next police chief, he’s heard things that are frustrating and “quite frankly disturbing.”

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Doyon said they don’t have the resources to do everything they’d like to and that he doesn’t think taxpayers understand the limitations on issues they want to tackle aggressively.

He said that commissioners will have to prioritize needs and that there’s a “frank conversation that needs to be had about what they’re actually capable of doing.”

During the commission’s late January priority setting meeting, Tryon said crime is the biggest issue facing the city and that the panel should study it and bring back recommendations.

He said it’s more than needing more officers on the street.

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For the last several years, both the GFPD and Great Falls Fire Rescue requested more personnel. Those requests came with hefty price tags, roughly $1 million between the two departments, and for the most part have not been funded, though several officers and firefighter positions have been added over the last eight years.

The city manager’s office has not recommended funding for most of those major increases in personnel and commissioners did not make changes to the recommended budgets to add those positions.

Commissioner Mary Moe said that it’s time to move beyond conversations and take action regarding public safety.

“I’m kind of tired of talking about it,” she said in January.

Commissioner Tracy Houck said during that meeting that there’s discussion of diverting people from jail, but then there needs to be mental health and other services in place.

Cascade County Josh Racki told The Electric that criminal case filings were down in 2020, but the case per attorney rate and number of cases active in court are up.

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The lower case filings is likely COVID related, and the average length of time that cases are taking to resolve is also up, Racki said.

The county attorney’s office has had to contract outside attorneys due to staffing shortages over the last year.

Racki said that to make up for those shortages, he had to transfer civil attorneys to the criminal division.

He’s hoping to be fully staffed again soon so they won’t need the outside help and be able to keep up with their caseload.

Currently, the county attorney’s office “is running at full capacity for cases and less than full capacity for employees,” Racki said.

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In Great Falls Municipal Court, the caseload is also down due to COVID, according to Judge Steve Bolstad.

In 2020, there were 7,400 total cases filed and were 2,693 active warrants with 4,899 warrants entered.

Bolstad said the case numbers are picking up again.

The city is advertising soon for the part-time judge position that was budgeted several years ago though the city is watching a bill in the Legislature that would require part-time judges to be elected.

Bolstad said that they had some success with their first round of mental health court participants, but were not successful in their grant application. They’ll be trying for another grant while also screening several new individuals for the mental health court, Bolstad said.

“I continuously work with folks with mental health diagnosis to try and keep them out of the system by providing incentives. The number of people with mental afflictions seems to be rising,” Bolstad said.

Doyon said that over the last decade, the city has done some very specific things to try to free up money in the general fund, such as contracting out golf and reducing subsidies to recreation, the library and other areas, to put those funds toward public safety.

But that doesn’t get to the front-end piece on drugs to curb other issues, Doyon said, or the follow-on challenges of the strain on the court system.

When they talk about law enforcement it’s more than officers on the street, with more officers comes more citations, more on the administration side and more cases in the court system.

“You pull one string and you start snagging something else in the mix too,” Doyon said.