City Commission discusses crime task force recommendations; has not yet set priorities

City Commissioners continued their discussion of the recommendations from the crime task force during their Dec. 7 work session.

They have no yet identified any priorities or agreed on how or what of the recommendations to fund.

Staff told commissioners that they’ll need commissioners to start prioritizing or offering guidance as to what they want staff to pursue implementation of and to be able to work on funding strategies.

Commissioner Mary Moe said that she believed the task force, and the commission, had not yet clearly identified the problem they’re trying to solve and that they’ll be unable to develop effective solutions without identifying the problem.

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She said that the recommendations from the task force were a brainstormed list of things they think we could try, but they have no identified clear problems and clear solutions. Moe that was the fault of the commission for not being more clear in what they were tasking the group to do.

Moe said that she was struck by what Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said in task force meetings that “this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Moe said that “you don’t become more safe because you have more police on the streets.”

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She said without a court system that can handle the case load, people will thumb their nose at the system and continue committing crime.

Moe said that she wanted a better understanding of what would happen to the court system and jail if the city adds more patrol officers, as all law enforcement officials have said that would likely lead to more citations, further straining the already backlogged court systems and crowded jail.

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Commissioner Rick Tryon, who suggested the crime task force in January 2021, during the commission’s annual priority setting meeting.

During the Dec. 7 work session, Tryon said the purpose of the effort was to make public safety a primary focus and not to address the problems the court, or police, or other city departments are having.

“I understand what we do will affect you in a great way…the focus is not to solve that problem, the focus is to protect the public and public safety,” Tryon said, and that then they’ll deal with what flows from that.

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He said the city could do a lot to address the issue by making public safety an agenda item for meetings to provide updates and said that the city considers it the top priority.

City Manager Greg Doyon said staff would need more information as to how Tryon would want that structured for regular government meetings.

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad, said “you have to come up with a definition of public safety and you cannot look at one of these in a vacuum. You have to look at it all together, you can’t just look at one thing.”

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Tryon countered that from the perspective of a citizen, they’re concerned with their garages getting broken into and not feeling safe downtown, so that to citizens those are the problems that need to be solved.

“That is to me public safety, what most people think of as public safety,” Tryon said.

Bolstad said, “but if we’re short on officers and court staff, we can’t deal with that.”

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Bolstad added that some of that has been impacted by changes in the state law that don’t allow jail time for certain misdemeanors, which included various forms of property crime and that when the jail was overcrowded a few years ago, the former sheriff would not accept misdemeanor offenders for a period of time.

He said that “we do have crime, we’re not any worse off than any other community right now. We are in a perfect storm right now, with our crime, with our resources and from the court’s perspective sometimes it feels like we’re drinking from the firehose, every single day.”

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Bolstad said that more officers will require more prosecutors in Municipal Court and increase their caseload.

The trick, he said, is figuring out how to recidivism.

Bolstad said the treatment courts help, but they take time.

Doyon, the city manager, said it may be more impactful to draft resolutions related to the recommendations, to say clearly what commissioners want. As an example, he said the task force was briefed by multiple law enforcement officials who said getting more federal agency support, particularly for drugs, could be helpful, so the commission could draft a resolution asking Montana’s Congressional delegation to look at that.

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Doyon said staff could also look at doing a community impact study on the cost of repeat offenders in the justice system, similar to what Billings did earlier this year, but that will take time.

Doyon said that the city has been awarded a federal COPS Grant for staffing some patrol officers, but the city has to match a portion of that cost and by the fourth year of the grant, assume the entire cost.

The Great Falls Police Department requested four patrol officers and was awarded a grant for three.

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That would make the city’s match about $548,000 the first year and the federal match that year would be about $375,000. The city’s portion would increase over the next two years and the fourth year, the city would have the entire cost.

The deadline to accept the grant is Jan. 1 and Doyon said staff would bring it to the commission on Dec. 17 for consideration.

He said it would be an opportunity to add resources to GFPD but that they need to be aware of the cost the city would assume over time and be prepared for that, or GFPD would be in a layoff situation.

Doyon said that there may be opportunities to use federal COVID relief funds toward some of the task force’s recommendations, but the commission wanted to make a public application process for those funds that will take more time and discussion to determine how those funds will be used.

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GFPD Chief Jeff Newton said that the grant covers about $125,000 per entry level patrol officer and they they’d use two on patrol and one to serve as the mental health officer, which dovetails into the effort to develop a community wide crisis intervention team with Alluvion Health.

The crime task force recommended adding eight new 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.

Doyon said the grant could go a little ways in meeting some of that recommendation, but reiterated that the city would assume the full cost in a few years.

He said the city did one COPS grant to add four officers and kept them on when the grant ended, but it was a tough budget year. He said staff makes estimates as to the future cost, but things can change over time in terms of labor agreements and wage increases.

Doyon said the city is already doing some of the things included in the recommendations, such as working with Alluvion and other partners to develop a crisis intervention team, and working with the treatment courts and Municipal Court.

“At some point we’re going to have to start prioritizing,” Doyon told commissioners.