“You don’t know how much crime happens around here!” RLPD educates City Council

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, July 25, 2019
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Photo by Eleanor Guerrero
Chief Jason Wells discusses the policing situation with Rod Bastian at a City of Red Lodge Budget meeting.

The City Council of Red Lodge, the mayor and about 20 members of the public got educated by City Police Chief Jason Wells on Monday, July 22, at a proposed budget review meeting. “According to the FBI, we are 7th in Montana: a very safe community! That didn’t happen by accident but by persistent law enforcement.”

The meeting started with a general review teaching the public about mills and general fund vs. enterprise funds, in a power point presented by the Mayor, Bill Larson, at City Hall. Also shown, was a screen comparing the populations, police budgets and number of officers in Red Lodge with the similarly sized communities of Columbus and West Yellowstone. 

Discussing the police budget, Wells said, “We were very thrifty. We gave back $40,000” that they had added to the previous budget anticipating further overtime with new officers away at training that was not needed. Later, the topic returned to the police.

Council member Dave Westwood said, using the police as an example for a department cost analysis, “How much police coverage is enough? My answer is whatever coverage of police that they’re willing to pay for. One of my concerns is it feels like some services we’ve increased…at the expense of others.” The police budget has increased but the parks dept. budget is, “if not zero, is pretty darn close.” He wondered what taxpayers expect to get for their taxes. He doesn’t want any department “completely starved” like parks. He compared the city departments' budgets to menus. He’d like department heads to offer “menu options” like "Police Coverage A, Police Coverage B. Fire is a restricted budget; that kind of helps.” 

Chief Wells said he was aware of rumors of the Council cutting the police budget. “We’re under budget. It is a different business than any other business.” 

He reminded them of the two new officers that have been training for six months each, required by law. In effect, “I’m paying for one year for an officer I can’t use.” 

He said, “I feel it’s imperative to have 24 hour coverage. We’re kind of a product of our own success. You don’t know how much crime happens around here. There’s a lot of crime happening in our community.” We just had a trial of a man killing a man in our community. 

With that he started to give a firsthand example to educate those present. “Two nights ago, with officers on” someone hit someone in the head with a hammer in Roberts. “Our officers responded before anything else happened.” Another incident was a domestic violence incident. “A person was stabbed. Our officer responded and stopped any further violence.”

Wells admitted it was an emotional topic as he defended his force. “I’m very passionate about our officers. They deal with a lot! Officers have two times the PTSD of veterans coming back and there’s no help. We’re expected to put a bandage on it and go back out and do our job and we do. Suicide is very high.” Even after your shift, he explained, it doesn’t end. “This job is 24/7. We still see and confront people that we’ve arrested. The only safe place our officers have is to go home and put their heads on a pillow.”

 “It may be a savings cost to the city but I want to show what that savings will cost the City of Red Lodge.” 

Wells has heard people say, “Go to Stillwater because they have zero law enforcement at 3 o’clock.” It says, “Open for business, criminals!” Property values go down, crime goes up. He seemed incredulous. “It’s (police budget) only 11 percent of the budget!” He exclaimed, “Who should I cut?”

By cutting people he said, “You’re asking me to send one officer into a bar fight by himself.” 

Wells said in Billings, if a car is stolen, no officer responds. “You go to a private citizen to take a report.” With Red Lodge officers, “you get services. We care about this community, we invest in this community.” 

Westwood interjected to say that his comments were not meant as an attack on the police at all. As for 24/7 coverage being stopped, he said the chief’s words were the argument against any such action. “That’s the menu option, that’s the ribeye! ‘Here’s why we don’t think it’s a good idea.’” 

Wells said, “This is the real cost.” He spoke of some officers being five miles out of town. If a call comes and it’s not 24/7 and the officer must come from home, it gets dangerous. 

He played a tape of an 8 year old girl, named Lisa, calling in a domestic dispute in which her mother appeared to be being beaten by her stepfather in another town. The child was screaming to dispatch for help and then the man turned to her. The child screamed and then there was silence. Dispatch kept trying to make contact saying an officer was on the way. Finally the child answered.

“That is not even two minutes,” said Wells to a hushed room. “Do you think that police service matters to her? I think it does. I’m very passionate about this because we have to hear this.” If not on call, an officer would have “to respond from a dead sleep, get dressed, respond at high speed “and it’s twenty minutes. If there’s one thing we learn it’s that violence happens quick. And we if don’t get there quick, more violence is going to happen here. That’s what you’re asking us to do on a daily basis.”

Wells has spoken to the Mayor about a raise for officers but no longer asks saying he understands the city’s position.

Wells spoke of the difficulty in retaining officers once trained. They are attracted to Billings: $25 to start-no experience, and over $30 with experience; $28 to start at the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office and even Dispatchers get $23. 

RLPD officers start at $20. He is working on training and retention by having officers sign a 3 year commitment and if they leave early they repay their training. One recently trained officer received an offer from Laurel of $3 higher and turned it down. “But he can’t afford to buy a house here,” said Wells, and has a long commute. 

Rod Bastian, of Red Lodge, said he was an officer in ’83. “I got two pairs of pants and shirts, a car to drive with 150,000 miles and bald tires. It was not safe for the officer; it was not safe for the community.” They also had to cover 24/7: “It was not a recent thing.”

He talked of the tape played. “That call, I’ve been there. It’s not pretty, not fun. It brought a tear to my eye and that was 30 years ago.” The city should look at all the budgets and see what has changed “not just the perception.”

“I think we focus on the biggest budget which is the police department which is the easiest cut. Bad things have been happening the dark for a long time. I wouldn’t be an officer today without one of two things: an officer backing me up or a canine. It’s a different world out there. There’s no respect for officers now.”

Heather Quinn said, “That’s why it’s so important to have a long city hall meeting. People are moving from 60 miles away because we are so safe. We have 24/7 coverage. They can’t live in Billings anymore. They have home invasions when people are in it. (Once caught) in 24 hours they are back on the street because there is so much crime there’s no room for them.” Quinn had a home invasion in Red Lodge and officers came. “Had they not been on call 24/7 it could have been really ugly. So I appreciate the officers.”

Various ideas were tossed about to make money for the city’s departments in need including more districts, even a police district. 

Bastian said, “You need more affordable housing for working class people to come into town. It’s an unintended consequence. We have a lot of weekend rentals now. There may be more, later. The only ones who can afford are those who live elsewhere!” He used to include water in his employee housing. With water bills about $100/month he no longer can. “We’ll become “a vacation rental village and not a community anymore.”

Westwood noted, “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Chief Wells.”