Billings businesspeople filled the Northern Hotel ballroom last week for a forum on public safety.
The event was organized by local public safety officials, Downtown Billings and the Billings Chamber of Commerce. It’s not surprising that they drew a crowd. The city, particularly the downtown area, has seen serious incidents of violence this year. Day to day, there seems to be more people just hanging out on the streets, and many of them appear to be intoxicated. Pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions have become common on North 27th Street, a five-lane arterial.
County Attorney Scott Twito invited community members to the free forum, noting that “Yellowstone County and the city of Billings, particularly the downtown corridor, have had several recent challenges to our sense of safety.”
Speaking to the crowd Wednesday, Twito asked what people want safety to look like here.
“It has to evolve as Billings continues to grow. And everybody has to be part of the solution; otherwise it can't evolve," Twito said.
To reduce opportunities for crime, the Billings Police Department will be helping property owners and businesses with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. This program emphasizes keeping sight lines clear between office doors and windows, and the sidewalks or parking lots around a building, keeping shrubs short and making sure trees shouldn't block windows or obscure the view into a parking lot.
Meanwhile, the city wants to work with state lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow the city to enact public intoxication or public incapacitation ordinances, Police Chief Rich St. John said. Previous proposals have failed in the Legislature, but lawmakers are convening again in January.
If state law allowed the city to prohibit public intoxication, police would have one more tool for getting drunken individuals off the streets. But jailing inebriated homeless people won’t solve their behavior problems.
Treating the underlying addiction and mental health problems is the best way to reduce downtown's vagrant and transient population, St. John said. That’s why the Billings Police Department continues its MAAP team with the two dedicated downtown patrol officers and a Rimrock counselor reaching out to street people who have substance abuse disorders. That three-person team ought to be expanded to address the increased street population.
Last month, when St. John gave a “state of the force” report to the City Council, the BPD was short 13 of the 153 officers budgeted. Attrition with retirements and resignations constantly reduces ranks that have been budgeted at a bare-bones level. This has been a problem for the past several years since voters last turned down a proposal to increase taxes for public safety.
The BPD is understaffed for the population size, the acreage and the call volume (upwards of 95,000 per year) residents expect it to handle. Although new hires are in training, that process takes most of a year, unless the new officers previously were trained with another law enforcement agency. When BPD patrols are shorthanded, officers must be pulled from other duties that actually prevent crime and motor vehicle crashes. That doesn’t make our city safer.
The City Council and incoming City Administrator Chris Kukulski must consider how to strategically increase the police force as they develop the next annual budget.
There is great need for addiction treatment and mental health care, for affordable housing, including sober housing for folks in addiction recovery. Billings has lots of entry-level job openings but a shortage of housing for workers in low-wage jobs. Addressing those challenges will require many dedicated partners.
Last week’s forum was an indication of strong community concern. Let’s keep the conversation going. Twito, St. John and Sheriff Mike Linder will contribute their time and expertise, but as they said Wednesday, everyone needs to be part of improving community safety.