City discusses creation of crime task force

City Commissioners are continuing their discussion on establishing a task force to “evaluate crime issues in our
community and produce detailed actionable recommendations on how to reduce crime in Great Falls,” according to Commissioner Rick Tryon’s proposed concept.

Tryon first raised the idea during the commission’s annual priority setting meeting in January. It was the only concrete idea to come out of the meeting which is typically used by staff to get priorities from commissioners so staff can plan the city budget accordingly.

During the March 16 work session, Tryon discussed his vision for the task force and by the end, commissioners agreed to have staff continue tweaking a draft resolution to be presented to a vote during the April 6 meeting.

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In Tryon’s draft document, the task force would produce recommendations with a focus on “how Great Falls law-enforcement and the local criminal justice system can better protect and serve our community and citizenry and help
ensure that we are safe in our persons and in our property.  The report and recommendations will be presented to the public, the Great Falls City Commission, and the City Manager for further action.”

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So far, commissioners are still discussing the appropriate membership for the committee.

Tryon suggested that the task force begin meeting in April and present its report and recommendations within three to six months so that the community, commission and city staff could begin considering and acting on, or not acting on, the recommendations by late summer or early fall.

That could be too late for any recommendations that have significant costs to be considered for the next budget, since the city’s budget year begins July 1 and the commission typically adopts its budget in July and finalizes tax assessments and levies in August. There are state laws setting deadlines on those actions.

Tryon said he wanted the task force to come up with specific solutions.

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As an example in his draft, he wrote that “rather than a recommendation that states: ‘we need more mental health facilities in Great Falls,’ a recommendation…would be something like: ‘The task force recommends that the city manager approves the hiring of one FTE to help the GFPD coordinate with local mental health organizations in order to free up 100 hours of police officer time. The cost of the FTE would be $50,000 annually to come out of the general fund.'”

The idea to hire someone at the Great Falls Police Department to focus on mental health has been floated since at least 2018 when the GFPD submitted a grant request to the Montana Mental Health Trust to establish a mental health officer who would be stationed at the Center for Mental Health.

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The city was not successful in getting that grant, which would have matched the portion of the grant they were also pursuing from the federal office of Community Policing CHP Program.

In that 2018 grant application, GFPD requested $234,074.28 from MTMHT to match the $201,744 in requested federal grant funds for a total 4-year project cost of $435,818.28.

In the 2018 application, Schaffer wrote: “The mental health of the citizens of Great Falls has long been a concern of both the GFPD and mental health professionals for decades. Community leaders have long looked for solutions to provide improved outcomes for those with mental illnesses. Currently, programs in Great Falls lack the ability to identify, prevent crisis and provide treatment options for a large portion of community that has not sought services. Police officers can help bridge the gap between crisis and care as they are on the front line when responding persons experiencing a mental health crisis.”

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The proposed pilot wass for four years, during which a GFPD officer would be stationed at the Great Falls Center for Mental Health and “work with providers to assist and provide a coordinated treatment plan to avoid unnecessary criminalization of citizens experiencing mental health problems,” according to the 2018 grant application.

GFPD Chief Dave Bowen told The Electric this week that the department did not ask for the position from the city’s general fund in their budget requests. No city commissioners suggested adding that position to the budget in the years since.

The idea of adding that mental health officer has also been mentioned in the recent discussions with Alluvion Heath’s proposal for a mental health crisis response program.

During the March 16 work session, Tryon said that he believes there’s a public perception that the local criminal justice system “is more concerned with helping criminals than the citizens.”

He said he doesn’t necessarily share that opinion, but the perception is a challenge for local law enforcement and the judicial system.

Mayor Bob Kelly asked if anyone had offered examples or data to support that claim. Tryon said he’d heard anecdotally that the perception is that when someone has an addiction and commits a crime, it seems as if the the system is more concerned with helping the offender than protecting citizens from crimes associated with addiction.

Tryon said that a major portion of the task force’s work should be to help educate the public on the needs and the costs for solutions.

“The problems we can solve our pretty limited,” Tryon said, and he wanted the group to focus on the problems within the city’s jurisdiction that it can solve.

Commissioner Mary Moe said that data shows that drug abuse and addiction is the primary driver of crime in Great Falls and that a significant number of the youth in need of care cases are drug related.

She said there are two ways to approach that, one is to criminalize it, “which is what we’re doing and we’re filling up our jails and our courts.” The other way is to treat it as a health issue.”

Commissioner Tracy Houck expressed some concern about getting commitment to serve on the task force from people who aren’t city employees, but she thinks it’s a good start and liked the draft resolution.

City Manager Greg Doyon said the crime issue is large and complicated so it’s often a question of where to start and figuring out what the city can affect with the resources it has.

“We’re never going to solve the crime problem in Great Falls but we can do things to better manage it,” Doyon said.