City Commission begins review of crime task force recommendations

City Commissioners took their first formal look at the crime task force’s recommendations during their Nov. 2 work session.

They don’t take formal action during work sessions and have indicated they’ll likely spend several more work sessions discussing the recommendations.

Sandra Guynn, the task force chair, said that the seven pages of recommendations weren’t in any particular order but were grouped in topic areas, such as staffing and resources, communication and education, consequences and partnerships.

[READ: Crime task force’s recommendation to the City Commission]

The recommendations include adding eight patrol officers for an estimated $800,000 and four sergeants for an estimated $550,000, neither of which the city has the resources to fund currently.

Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton said those numbers would allow the department to fully staff their patrol bureau with six patrol squads and the Directed Enforcement Team.

City Attorney Jeff Hindoien and Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad said that with additional patrol officers, more citations would likely be issued, which would require more resources in the legal department and court.

City Commission to take first look at crime task force recommendations during Nov. 2 meeting

Hindoien said that commissioners should be mindful that adding patrol officer “will put a load on our already overtaxed” legal system in the city.

In the near term, he said they can do some of the recommendations with existing resources, “but our office and Municipal Court are in a position of not having really any additional bandwidth” if more patrol officers are added.

Bolstad said that even without more patrol officers and citations, the prosecutors office is already facing challenges from more elaborate defenses.

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There are three prosecutors in the city, plus Hindoien, and “those guys are working their butts off,” Bolstad said.

Bolstad said that he’s already in court 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and holding trials weekly.

He invited commissioners and others to visit the court to see their operations.

“It’s not a vacuum,” he said.

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The recommendations included looking at why collections have declined over the years. Bolstad said that the decline since 2017 is directly related to changes in state law that reduced consequences for certain misdemeanors and removed the court’s ability to suspend drivers licenses for nonpayment of fines.

Bolstad said that they handle more than 6,000 warrants but without the ability to impose consequences like suspend drivers license for failure to pay, there’s little motivation for people to pay their fines and little the court can do about it.

There’s also a lack of jail space and since his court handles misdemeanors, he is discerning in who he sends to jail.

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“A lot of these things that you’re looking at, they play upon each other,” Bolstad said. “Most of these people are the same people over and over again. I think there’s a deeper problem than what we’re looking at here tonight.”

He said that they’ve also struggled to seat juries and had at least five mistrials this year as a result.

Commissioner Mary Moe said that their instructions to the task force were to study and evaluate the issues, then make findings with specifics.

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“I don’t see any findings, so the recommendations are untethered to the work of the commission,” Moe said, and that to her, some recommendations appeared to be no more than let’s just try this. “For me, half of the report and arguably the most important half…I don’t find.”

Commissioner Rick Tryon said that the resolution establishing the task force didn’t call for findings.

Moe read from the resolution, which states, “the general purpose of the task force shall be to study, review, evaluate, and make recommendations to the City Commission, city manager and general public on strategies to address crime. The committee’s findings will include specifics and actionable recommendations that are within the scope, authority, and financial ability of the City Commission, city manager and general public.”

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Moe said, “I’m trying to find the basis of study and evaluation that led to the recommendations and I don’t see them.”

She said it was the fault of the commission for not being more clear on what findings are.

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Tryon said that if Moe wanted a more detailed report, she should have said that when the formed the group and amended the resolution.

Guynn said that if the commission wanted that level of study, it would have taken a lot more time and that it should have been more clear if that was expected of them.

“I think the resolution is quite clear,” Moe said.