Downtown Resource Officers

Downtown resource officers Tony Nichols, left, and Matt Lennick.

If you ask Tony Nichols and Matt Lennick how they like their work, they’ll say the same thing: They love it.

“It’s a pretty sweet gig,” Nichols said Wednesday in their office at the Downtown Billings Alliance, 2815 Second Ave. N.

He and Lennick recently took over as the two downtown resource officers. They police the Business Improvement District’s “Safe Zone,” an area that stretches roughly from South Park to St. Vincent Healthcare and from North 32nd Street to North Park.

And Nichols and Lennick aren’t the only ones who love the impact they’re having downtown.

“They’re part psychologist, part cop and part public relations people, and they just do a remarkable job,” said Gary Buchanan, co-owner of Buchanan Capital, 201 N. Broadway. “They’ve changed downtown immensely.”

Nichols and Lennick -- who are easily recognizable by their bright yellow uniforms -- have taken over for Shane Winden and Harley Cagle, the first two downtown resource officers. Winden was promoted to sergeant in the Billings Police Department last summer and Cagle chose to return to patrol.

The program, which first paid an officer’s salary in 2009, is a unique public-private partnership, said Lisa Harmon, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, which spearheaded the endeavor.

The Billings Police Department provides the two officers, and the roughly 500 property owners in the Business Improvement District are assessed a tax that generates about $125,000 a year to pay for the program and the officers’ salaries, she said.

“I think it’s a really great investment,” Buchanan said. “I hope we keep doing it.”

“We’re highly visible,” Lennick said. “That’s the big thing down here. We get to know a lot of the staff and owners and building owners on a first-name basis.”

They give out their cellphone numbers, which allows them to respond to calls for service faster. It also has the added benefit of letting folks downtown know exactly which officers will be responding.

When they’re needed, the officers are “here within minutes,” Buchanan said.

“It kind of has that old beat cop feel,” said Bill Gottwals, regional president for US Bank. “They’re more mobile. They’re more visible. They’re more interactive.”

The two officers have a patrol car and a large ATV at their disposal, but during the summer you’re more likely to see them on foot or on bicycles.

“I can come down here on my days off and go into their shop and they’ll know who I am,” Nichols said. “I like that. I like getting to know all the people down here.”

Lennick, 30, started as a downtown resource officer last November. He was born and raised in Billings, and worked as a Musselshell County sheriff’s deputy from 2004 to 2006 before joining the Billings Police Department.

Nichols, 29, is originally from Great Falls. He joined the Billings Police Department in 2008 and started as a downtown resource officer in January.

Between the two of them, Nichols and Lennick provide police support from roughly 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and during special events downtown.

The job generally has a more laid-back pace than working as a regular patrol officer, Nichols and Lennick said.

“You get an opportunity to deal with people that are not always complaining about something,” Lennick said. “They don’t always have a problem. It’s kind of just like a load off. It really is. It’s much more relaxed.”

Nichols and Lennick also oversee the Billings Crime Watch for Businesses, which is basically a neighborhood watch for members of the Business Improvement District.

Businesses are grouped together in a calling tree and listed in a handout.

“We put each business into a section and they’re kind of responsible for reporting any suspicious activity not only to us, but to their neighboring businesses,” Lennick said.

“It’s really gotten the neighbors to talk to each other,” Harmon said.

Business owners and employees aren’t the only downtown people the resource officers get to know on a first-name basis. They also interact extensively with Billings’ transient population.

“I know them all -- all of them,” Lennick said. “And some of them you check up on and you make sure they’re OK. You know what their problems are. You know what disabilities or vices they have.”

“They’re very skilled with homeless people,” Buchanan said of the officers. “A lot of them (the transients) aren’t doing anything illegal, but they just need some help.”

Harmon, who encouraged people to support the program going forward, said the downtown resource officers have had a “transformative” impact on Billings.

“It has been an economic development tool that I didn’t know it would be,” she said.

“It’s all about drawing people into the downtown area and revitalizing the area,” Lennick said. “And that’s why we’re here. And Tony and I are working as hard as we can to make this program a positive program and make sure it works and continues.”

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