Gazette opinion: Train more officers to deal with downtown issues

2014-06-15T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Train more officers to deal with downtown issues The Billings Gazette
June 15, 2014 12:00 am

Law enforcement officers need the right tools to deal with people in crisis because of mental health or substance abuse problems.

For the past several years, officers and other emergency first responders have acquired those tools in nationally recognized Crisis Intervention Training offered annually at the Community Crisis Center, 704 N. 30th St. This year, the center is planning to offer a second training session, Sept. 8-12. We encourage the Billings Police Department to take advantage of this highly effective training and send as many officers a possible.

Police Chief Rich St. John and Sheriff Mike Linder have been supportive of the Crisis Center and a number of officers from both departments are CIT grads. However, not all officers have been trained.

“We do support that program,” St. John said last week. “It’s diffused a lot of things.”

The BPD has been challenged this year with a spike in complaints about intoxicated or unruly persons on downtown streets. CIT teaches professionals how to de-escalate volatile situations so that nobody gets hurt. Of course, crisis intervention skills can be needed on calls anywhere in our city.

Crisis intervention

At a recent meeting of the Eastern Service Area Authority for mental health in Billings, Sheriff Dan Tronrud of Sweet Grass County talked about the value of CIT.

“That first four or five minutes (on a crisis call) can set the tone between being able to talk a person into taking a ride to get help or being tazed and taken to jail,” Tronrud said. “CIT shows us we can take care of these situations on our own, and when we need to, transport to the Crisis Center or Billings Clinic.”

All seven officers in the Sweet Grass Sheriff’s Office have completed CIT. Few Montana departments can make the all-trained claim.

Law enforcement agencies, communities and individuals in crisis all benefit when CIT is appropriately used. Injuries are reduced. The officers spend less time handling the call. Worker’s compensation claims have decreased in departments using CIT, according to MarCee Neary, director of the Crisis Center.

With downtown business and city leaders searching for better ways to deal with street people, BPD should take full advantage of CIT – one powerful tool for keeping everybody safe.

Public-private partners

Downtown business leaders are talking with the city about the possibility of adding downtown police officers, according to St. John and Lisa Harmon, executive director of Downtown Billings. The Downtown Business Improvement District now reimburses the city about $130,000 a year to provide two officers in addition to regular city patrols.

“They have been just critical to downtown as we are growing,” Harmon said.

Public-private partnerships are critical, St. John said, noting that the police force isn’t going to expand on its current budget

“The business sector is very motivated right now to be a partner,” Harmon said.

Downtown Billings is moving forward with other ideas to improve public health and safety:

- A campaign telling folks it’s OK to say no to panhandlers and encouraging donation to local organizations that serve homeless, addicted or otherwise disadvantaged people.

- A fall forum that will bring in people from other cities that have developed successful strategies for dealing with causes and effects of needy people hanging out on the streets.

- Forming a task force to seek grants from the foundation set up as the result of the Blue Cross Blue Shield merger.

Harmon served for years on the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and wants to empower the organizations that serve this population with dignity. She and Neary understand that moving services out of downtown isn’t the answer. It will take many steps and many people working together to meet this community challenge.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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