With nine vacancies and six additional officers contemplating retirement in the coming year, staffing remains among the biggest challenges for the Billings Police Department, Chief Rich St. John told the city council Monday.
A veteran of nearly 38 years with the department, St. John provided the council with an update near the conclusion of Monday’s five-hour work session.
Authorized for 153 officers, the count now stands at 140, St. John said, with four recent hires currently attending the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.
Police are preparing to offer positions to up to five other candidates, all of them already Peace Officer Standards and Training certified, which means they can skip the 12 weeks at the academy and part of the department’s 15 weeks of field training.
Of the current force, 11 are women, 3 are black, and 2 each are Asians, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, according to St. John. While “we throw our recruiting net far and wide and actively recruit minorities,” few apply, St. John said. “Those minorities who do apply usually get hired,” he told the council.
Just as important to the department is officer retention, St. John said. “We work hard to engage the millennial workforce,” he said. “Young officers are moving into leadership roles, and it’s enabling and empowering for them.” St. John acknowledged with a grin occasionally hearing younger officers address him as “Chief Dude.”
He said he worries about officers’ personal safety and their mental health as calls for service during the current year are on pace to surpass last year’s nearly 95,000 calls.
“We’ve got to pay attention to morale,” he said, “and we don’t want complacency, which kills in this business.”
St. John reminded the council that the nine police beats in place now are the same nine that were established when he was a young officer nearly 40 years ago.
There’s a plan to increase that to 11 beats, but that would require minimum staffing to be 11 rather than the current 9. In the meantime, police continue to double up on busy beats, he said.
The street crimes unit “was fully staffed for maybe two months,” St. John said. Officers assigned to that work and traffic enforcement have had to fill in on patrol. “If it’s critical, I will pull people out of specialized positions,” including school resource officers funded in part by School District 2.
“Another part of the Police Department that needs attention,” the chief said, is the Animal Control Division, which has a supervisor, an office manager and three officers “for a city this size. People are passionate about their animals and where they end up.”
St. John also addressed what he called “the elephant in the room, this time the GOP party”: his requested reimbursement for the nearly $46,000 the department spent to help protect President Donald Trump during a Sept. 6 campaign rally, along with about $31,000 spent on Vice President Mike Pence’s July campaign appearance.
“We’ve been waiting to hear a response, but we have nothing to report,” St. John told the council. “We’ll keep you posted.”