City crime task force developing ideas for crime reduction recommendations

The Great Falls crime task force is continuing its effort to craft recommendations to the City Commision to address crime and related issues in the community.

During the meeting, Sandra Guynn, the task force chair, who is also chair of the Council of Councils, serves on Neighborhood Council 4 and is president of the local Crime Stoppers, read from a list of recommendations provided to her by Commissioner Rick Tryon.

The document had not been shared with other members of the task force or included in the agenda packet for the public in advance of the meeting.

During the meeting it was emailed to The Electric and is now added to the city website.

The group is using Tryon’s document to add their compiled recommendations and post that for the public review and comment next week in advance of the task force’s Sept. 13 meeting.

One of Tryon’s suggested recommendations is to task the Great Falls Police Department, city legal department and the Municipal Court to provide an assessment of the additional personnel/resources they need to address crime and the justice system locally.

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The city government does not have the authority to direct Municipal Court as the judge is a elected official and has jurisdiction over court operations.

Tryon wrote in his list that once the departments determine those needs and the cost of adding them, the commission and city manager could determine whether to fund them and how to do so, whether through the budget, a safety levy or grants.

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The GFPD and legal department, along with all other city departments, annually provide their list of prioritized needs during the budget process.

Annually, the departments submit their budgets as well as their “over and above” requests for items to be added to their budgets. For years, the GFPD has requested more police officers and for the most part, the commission has made no move to fund them.

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Nearly a decade ago, the city received a federal COPS grant and added four police positions, but when the grant ended in 2013, the city was faced with funding those positions or laying off the officers.

In the budget process of 2014, the commission opted to keep all four and that equated to $318,000 annually.

In the summer of 2019, GFPD requested either four or six new officers. Four officers would cost an estimated $350,340 and six could cost an estimated $525,510.

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Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Steve Hester requested six new firefighters for an estimated $471,000.

None of those staffing requests were funded.

In that budget, the commission did fund a part-time judge to be added to Municipal Court to help handle the increasing caseload, but that position has not yet been filled.

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During COVID, all city budgets remained level-funded for the most part and few additional staffing requests were filled, none for police or fire.

In 2018, the budget did not fund the six additional police officers requested by the Great Falls Police Department, the part-time judge requested by the Great Falls Municipal Court or the two additional firefighters requested by Great Falls Fire Rescue.

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That budget did fund occupational physicals for firefighters at $79,487.85; repairs for two fire stations where the sewer has collapsed creating a void under those stations; and $20,000 for tuition assistance for current firefighters pursuing paramedic certification.

The budget adopted in 2017 also did not fund GFPD or GFFR’s requests for six new positions each.

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That budget did add one new fire inspector.

The requested six firefighter positions total $408,000 or $68,00 each. The requested six police positions was $464,142, or $73,000 each, in 2017.

In the 2016 budget, the city funded new frontline engines, a new ambulance a brush truck.

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During the meeting, GFPD Chief Jeff Newton said the department was working on another COPS grant for staffing, but that the group needed to consider the impact to other segments of the justice system if additional officers are added.

More officers could be more citations, putting more strain on the overloaded court system, more people in the overcrowded jail and more strain on probation and parole officers.

The city is looking at the use of some COVID relief funding for some fire department requests, but not for staffing.

During the meeting, Guynn asked whether it would be worth revisiting the GFPD canine program, which was suspended in 2016 due to injuries to handlers and the dogs.

GFPD had a canine program for 12 years with seven different dogs.

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In 2018, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office launched a canine program and they support the GFPD when needed.

The Montana Highway Patrol launched a drug canine program in 2014.

Newton said during the meeting that it was recently discussed and would be strictly for narcotics detection, but such a program “is horrendously expensive” and would be “a significant commitment” by GFPD and the city to do it right. For now, with existing resources, it’s not realistic, Newton said.

Shane Etzweiler, director of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, suggested that the city should add a truancy officer.

Judge John Parker said that he’d never seen juries convict on truancy patterns.

The GFPD contracts with Great Falls Public Schools to provide four school resources officers, who handle a wide range of issues with students, and do some work with truancy, but several officials said that hadn’t been a primary issue in the city.

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Among Tryon’s draft recommendations were to deploy foot patrols in high crime areas in January.

It was not discussed how that would be implemented and the potential delays it would cause to response times if officers were on foot and the security of a patrol vehicle left unattended for long periods of time.

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According to GFPD, their response times have started shortening thanks to a schedule change that was implemented a few years ago and that on average, patrol officers have about 10 minutes of undedicated time per shift.

Nichole Griffith, a task force member and executive director of Victim-Witness Assistance Services of Great Falls and Cascade County, cited an article they’d been sent about a community impact survey of repeat users of the emergency response system and asked if they could reach out to Billings and ask how they did it.

The study is available on the City of Billings website and the first three pages address their methodology for the study.

Newton and City Attorney Sara Sexe said a formal review of the same kind has not been conducted by the City of Great Falls.

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Sexe said there was an informal assessment in the legal office in which prosecutors said there are some individuals that they deal with frequently. The GFPD and GFFR also have some they deal with frequently.

Etzweiler said that such a study would cost money, though it appears the Billings analysis was conducted in-house by the Billings Police Department and Downtown Billings Association.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, a task force member, said that it’s a city task force to use city resources and he supported anything the GFPD chief thinks he needs.

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“The problem we have, that we really have to be careful about, is that we have a capacity problem,” Slaughter said. “The county attorney’s office doesn’t have enough prosecutors to prosecute felonies the city is pushing through, I don’t have enough room in the jail, we don’t have enough judges.”

Over the Aug. 13-15 weekend, he said GFPD booked 49 people into the jail. He said they’re doing their job, but the jail fills up quickly and the court system is already backed up.

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This summer, Slaughter worked with the Montana Department of Corrections to transfer all state prisoners out of the county jail, ending that yearslong partnership and freeing up space in the jail. That moved about 150 state prisoners to another facility.

As of Aug. 24, there were 382 people in the jail, which has a capacity of 372, Slaughter told The Electric.

He said that if the city adds more officers, more prosecutors at the city and county level, and jail beds will be needed to handle the increase in criminal charges that would likely follow.

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He said that before he’d support a levy for a bigger jail the community needs to do a pre-trial program.

“We need a real, robust pretrial program, we have to have room in the jail to fight crime the way we need to,” Slaughter said. “We’ve tried and done pieces of it, but don’t have enough for it.”

The county has not funded the pre-trial program that several officials were working on a few years ago.

But, he pointed out, “the city is very safe, of course I want it to be more safe.”

Some recommendations included the Neighborhood Watch program and crime mapping.

The GFPD launched a publicly available crime mapping tool in 2020.

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The Neighborhood Councils are developing Neighborhood Watch programs themselves, as the GFPD doesn’t have the resources to run the program and the program is designed to be created by neighbors themselves keeping an eye on their neighborhoods and reporting suspicious behavior to law enforcement. That work has been ongoing for years and is often discussed at Neighborhood Council meetings.

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During the meeting, Tryon also suggested that one of the commission’s monthly work sessions be dedicated to collaborating with other law enforcement related entities to figure out how to work together to address crime issues.

Several have suggested that the recommendations should look at pre-trial, including Parker. It’s unclear how the city would fund or operate a pre-trial program as all felony offenses run through the county attorney’s office and district court and are held in the county jail, none of which the city has a authority over.

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There was some discussion of partnering with the county, though existing partnerships related to the City-County Health Department and 911 dispatch center have been rocky during joint meetings among the city and county officials.

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Several task force members said they wanted to recommend increased collaboration with other agencies, to include the planned crisis intervention program being spearheaded by Alluvion Health.

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The group also discussed a recommendation on adding a public information person for public safety.

The GFPD has two people who specifically handle public information, GFFR has increased their public information efforts in recent months and the city as a whole has a communication specialist.

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Newton said they push out information on the crime mapping, video camera registry and more. They also work with the Business Improvement District to push information on downtown related issues and the neighborhood councils and Neighborhood Watch programs.

“There are times when an individual needs to take the responsibility to seek out the information,” Newton said. “People in our community also have a responsibility to educate themselves.”

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The group discussed lighting and security cameras and Tryon asked if the city had a program to help people get lighting or cameras.

Multiple officials said during the meeting that they didn’t know of any.

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The commission recently approved an expanded program for the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District that included funding specifically for businesses in the downtown to add security cameras and lights. That program was discussed in multiple public meetings and the documents were publicly available. Tryon voted on that item.

During the meeting, Joan Redeen of the Downtown Business Improvement District, messaged Etzweiler about the new TIF program, which was also approved by the Downtown Development Partnership that Etzweiler is a member of.

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Tryon’s draft recommendations included stricter punishments for panhandling, loitering, public nuisance and drug paraphernalia.

Sexe, the city attorney, reminded the group that panhandling is protected as free speech under Supreme Court case law. There are aspects of behavior that become subject to law enforcement action, but the act of asking for money is protected under law.

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His recommendations included presenting the Municipal Court and District Court judges with “legal options for sentencing low risk criminals in order to free up resources for high risk criminals” and those options could include cleaning parks, graffiti and washing windows, as well as purchasing a one-way bus ticket out of town.

CCSO is currently working on a work-release program, according to Slaughter.

Parker reminded the group that sentencing guidelines and rules are dictated by state and federal laws and are the discretion of judges.

He also asked that buying bus tickets be removed as a suggestion.

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Parker said that there are rumors that other communities to it to Great Falls and “it’s offensive to us. If it’s offensive to us, we shouldn’t aim it out at others. There’s other more fruitful things we could talk about.

Tryon said he included it as an option because he hears it from members of the public.

Slaughter said that idea is controversial but worth public comment.

“Banishment is an effective way of correcting behavior,” he said.

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Sexe, city attorney, said “we have to be careful that we aren’t infringing rights in the process” of coming up with solutions.

Newton said that most of the issues in that recommendation were city ordinance related and that considering resources and priorities the group should “look at bigger picture.”

He said that GFPD issues citations regarding those violations, but they aren’t likely to put people in jail on city ordinance violations.

While these issues tend to be visible to the public, they’re quality of life issues versus criminal issues.

He said they run the risk of getting sucked down a rabbit hole on low level issues instead of the bigger issues.

Slaughter suggested that the city should look at ordinances to restrict needle exchange or methadone clinics.

Tryon said he wasn’t sure they can legally ban methadone clinics but that the city has fostered a “crime and poverty industry” and people send their problems here.

Methadone is one form of medication assisted treatment for addiction and Great Falls, as well as Billings, Belgrade. Kalispell and Missoula, according to a basic Google search. Suboxone is another form of MAT and available in a larger number of Montana cities.

There are several needle exchange programs in Montana and the 2017 Legislature passed a law allowing certain organizations to provide needle exchange to prevent the spread of disease.

The group also discussed paying attention to bills in the Legislature that affect crime, such as the Montana Justice  Reinvestment Act of 2017 that limited the types of misdemeanors that included jail as punishment.

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Members of the group said they needed to pay attention to those and communicate with lawmakers about bad laws or the unintended consequences.

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad, then Deputy County Attorney Josh Racki, a deputy city prosecutor and Montana Association of Counties spoke in opposition during hearings on the 2017 justice reform bill. The Montana County Attorneys Association also opposed the bill.

Slaughter and Dave Bowen, the former GFPD chief, have both said publicly that the law has caused a spike in local crime.

The group is expected to post their draft recommendations on the city website for public review and comment.