New crime task force begins meeting

The city’s newly established crime task force met for the first time June 7 to go over basics of public meetings and get an initial briefing from Great Falls Police Department Chief Jeff Newton.

During the meeting, City Commissioner Rick Tryon said that the city is looking for specific recommendations on addressing crime issues in the community.

Crime task force meets for first time June 7

The committee will be asked to make recommendations to the commission by September on actions they can take to address crime in the city.

At that point, Tryon said, they’ll “see where the will is to do those things.”

Part of what the group could recommend is a public safety levy, Tryon said.

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The group’s recommendations will likely be made after the city adopts the budget on July 20. The city’s budget year begins July 1 through June 30.

City Manager Greg Doyon said the budget can be amended during the year. He said he’ll brief the committee on the city’s public safety budget and the budget process.

Doyon said that there’s no single fix to crime related issues in the community since “criminal behavior and its consequences” are complex and “continually evolving.”

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He said it’s less of a problem to be solved and more of “a problem to be managed better,” that will require collaboration, right resourcing and “there will need to be a political will to enforce and carry out its recommendations.”

Doyon said the discussion needs to include fair and honest recognition of the challenges facing the city and the impact on budgets. Over the years, there’s been discussion on getting more staff or resources for the police department and different efforts to accomplish that such as cuts, redirection of resources, grants and a failed public safety levy attempt, he said.

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But that’s only one aspect of the situation since “curbing crime in the city doesn’t begin or end with contract with law enforcement,” Doyon said.

As advice to the group, he said there needs to be an awareness of what the city can and can’t do and the impact to other agencies.

“You may be surprised” at what city can and can’t do, Doyon said, and encouraged the group to focus on what it can do rather than what it can’t.

“This will be frustrating,” Doyon said, and it will take more than the city to address crime related issues.

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Newton, GFPD chief, said that the department is currently understaffed and that it takes about six months to get newly hired officers through training and on the streets.

He said that there was a slight decrease in calls for service in 2020 in the city, but the county had an uptick. There was a decrease in reports of crimes against children, but law enforcement believes that was due to school closures and the lack of interaction for children with people who are mandatory reporters.

Assault and narcotics increased in 2020 and domestic violence incidents increased significantly, Newton said.

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Drugs continues to be a major crime drive in Great Falls, he said, and law enforcement seized about 27 pounds of meth in 2020.

Heroine, cocaine and marijuana are present locally, but “meth in this community is still king,” Newton said.

With the legalization of marijuana, Newton said he expects to see an increase in DUIs.

A concern for law enforcement is that they’re seeing heroine laced with fentanyl, which is deadly in small amounts, and now they’re seeing trends from the west coast, that often push toward Montana, of heroine cut with a mix of fentanyl and carfentanil, which is a synthetic opioid about 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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There was also a significant increase in 2020 of assaults on officers, doubling over 2019, Newton said.

In those cases, people were more aggressive, don’t comply and fight with officers to resist arrest. Many of those people are under the influence of narcotics or alcohol or some combination thereof, and some are suffering from mental or behavioral crisis, and some of those incidents result in officer injuries, Newton said.

Use of force incidents were up from the previous year in 2020, but lower than they were in 2018.

There were 246 incidents in 2018; 163 in 2019 and 214 in 2020, Newton said.

For the department’s budget, personnel costs have continued to increase and the cost of the state training academy has also increased.

It costs about $3,000 to fully equip an officer, Newton said.

Technology costs are also increasing, as are storage costs for retaining videos from dashcams, he said.

The department’s budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is $17 million.

The next task force meeting is scheduled for June 14.