Missoula struggles with officer burnout as crime increases; new hires on the horizon

At a public hearing this summer on the city of Missoula’s fiscal year 2019 budget, Missoula police officer Stacy Lear voiced her concerns about law enforcement staffing shortages and advocated funding for three new officers.

“Our officers are quitting due to burnout,” she told City Council members. “Our city is losing good officers because we can’t keep working this long and this hard. We are forced to choose between being active parents of our children and serving the public for 60 to 80 hours per week.

“It’s this way day in and day out, year after year, and we are quitting because we cannot take it.”

Missoula’s police force, Lear said, is perpetually and grievously understaffed.

City Council members unanimously agreed to fund three new officers, increasing the department’s roster from 106 to 109 once the rookies are hired and trained.

They won’t be enough, though, to address all of Missoula’s policing needs.

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A few days after the budget hearing, six officers were sworn in to fill existing vacancies in the Missoula Police Department.

Five are now attending the Montana Law Enforcement Academy and one will soon complete field training in Missoula.

Two vacancies remain on the force because of officers still in field training or on family medical leave, Police Chief Mike Brady said in a recent interview with Missoula Current.

The three newly approved officers will be placed on patrol squads once they complete training next June, Brady said. The six officers recently sworn will be on the streets in February.

And while these hires will help, three more officers are needed to raise the department’s minimum staffing level from five officers per squad to six.

“The new positions will help patrol have some availability,” Brady said. “Ideally, you’d want [officers] to spend more time on each call. We have a patrol division that’s filled with exceptional people and they could do so much more, given time to do it.”

Filling vacancies on patrol squads can, in turn, help relieve pressure on detectives.

“If patrol is staffed adequately, it allows for initial responding officer(s) to complete more investigative work,” the chief said in a follow-up email. “Current call volumes will require patrol officers to prioritize calls as well as limit their time on each call.”

The growing demands on officers are a reflection of local crime statistics.

Project Safe Neighborhoods and the Missoula Police Department reported an increase in violent crimes – aggravated assault, rape, murder and robbery – from 2010 to 2016, then a decrease of about 6 percent in those crimes in 2017.

From 2011 to 2017, Missoula saw a 49 percent increase in violent crime overall, much of it attributed to the significant growth in methamphetamine offenses, Brady said.

It’s a statewide epidemic.

From 2012 to 2016, meth-related offenses skyrocketed 313 percent in Montana, according to the Board of Crime Control.

Calls for service, which can include non-criminal incidents, increased 26 percent, while felony investigations jumped 34 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Little wonder, then, that Missoula needs more police officers, particularly on its patrol squads, Brady said.

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A case in point: Missoula’s Westside, where residents and business owners begged the city for a stronger police presence this summer, saying the neighborhood no longer feels safe.

Brady said he can’t correlate the Westside with Missoula’s overall increase in crimes, but agreed the area needs a larger police presence.

“I’ve had several constituents contact me and, of course, we had a group of Westside residents come down to a council meeting a couple weeks ago to express some concerns about an increase in drug use and needle trash [and an] increase in petty crime – just kind of a general sense that there’s an increase in unsavory behavior,” said Jordan Hess, a Ward 2 City Council member and Westside resident.

Some residents said they’ve felt threatened by transients in the neighborhood and are hesitant to let their children play in Lions Park. Business owners said they’ve started covering windows and keeping doors locked during the day.

Missoula crime prevention officer Ethan Smith has been working with Westside residents since they voiced the concerns and said extra patrols have already been assigned to the neighborhood.

Lions, Kiwanis, Westside and Northside parks and the West Broadway corridor are focus areas, even with officers stretched thin, Smith said in an interview.

“We’re still going to do our best to cover all of the incidents that happen throughout the city, but we definitely want to make sure we’re addressing those concerns that are coming specifically from the Westside,” he said. “Our job has always been, regardless of staffing levels, to take care of any emergency or any public safety issue or crime in the city limits of Missoula.”

While police presence helps, it won’t solve the problem, Westside residents said.

Hess said that state and federal cuts to social services and overcrowding at the Poverello Center are among the contributing factors.

“If we cut mental health services and we have people that are on the street without access to mental health care and without access to medication and services they need, that becomes a policing problem,” he said. “So things that shouldn’t be police problems become police problems when we have decisions at the state and federal level.”

Transients are another factor, as is the increase in drug use — again primarily methamphetamine.

“This is more of a problem of people who have chronically bad behavior,” the councilman said. “I don’t think there are very many. I think there are a handful of people who are causing 95 percent of the problems.”

A surveillance system soon will be installed on the California Street footbridge, and Westside residents are trying to implement a Neighborhood Watch program.

The police department will continue to address individual calls and will help Missoula Parks & Recreation analyze the neighborhood’s parks and open spaces from a crime perspective.

For example, the assessment may recommend replacing bushes and plants that can be used for hideouts with shorter, native plants, Smith said.

While residents and other members of the city brainstorm solutions, the department is aware that a larger staff can help develop strategic plans for areas like the Westside.

“Frankly, having two or three less officers in any given month doesn’t negatively impact our overall ability to help the community, but certainly being at full strength will give us some extra manpower to target specific areas,” Smith said.

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While the new officers will help with staffing shortages, the City Council and Police Department will conduct a study within the next year that will guide the department to proper staffing levels, assessing how many officers are needed per capita and suggest ways to increase efficiency.

A city plan to annex roughly 3,200 acres west of Reserve Street is also on the radar, Brady said, and he hopes the study will help determine the number of officers needed to cover the area.

“Are we using our current people as efficiently as we can?” Brady asked. “So we hope to move forward with a study that will tell us what we’re doing right, what we can do better, and what is the level of staffing we need to adequately provide for Missoula.”

Some calls, Brady said, require more than one officer to respond. Calls regarding citizens in crisis or mental health-related calls are also increasing, and more officers who have CIT certification, or crisis intervention training, are needed.

Mental health-related calls increased from 467 in 2015 to 608 in 2017.

“When someone is in the midst of a mental health crisis, it takes more staff,” Brady said. “So we’re having an increase in calls of the nature that require more than one person to respond.”

A lack of staffing for patrol units means that officers in specialty positions are being moved to patrol squads. Two officers who specialized in DUI arrests were assigned to patrol, along with two street crimes officers. K-9 units are also filling in as team strength, Brady said.

The shortages are partially caused by a lack of individuals applying to and attending the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, as well as limited space at the academy.

The academy only hosts three training sessions a year and each new officer is required to attend.

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Glen Stinar, administrator of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, said the programs train officers from many different jurisdictions, including the Montana Highway Patrol, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, dispatchers, corrections officers, detention officers, and probation and parole officers – as well as city police officers and county sheriff’s deputies.

The academy provides basic training classes for law enforcement three times per year, with only about 60 spots that can be reserved by the 158 law enforcement agencies in Montana. Spots are first-come, first-served.

Still, some agencies and departments are struggling to fill vacancies.

“When the economy is doing well, typically you’ll see a reduction in applicants for law enforcement jobs,” Stinar said. “Traditionally around the country, that’s how it is. People are looking for good-paying stable jobs with benefits, and when there are lots of those out there, typically there are more to choose from.”

The academy plans to remodel and increase its bed count from 106 to 132, but having enough trainers and staff can be challenging as well. Stinar said for now, agencies want predictability and sometimes the academy can provide that.

The September class had all 60 spots reserved, with about 55 students actually training. Those five openings were then available to agencies on the waitlist.

Officers, once finished with the 12-week program, will go through a comprehensive field training with their individual departments, and that can last another three months.

By law, all officers must train in the academy within a year of when they’re hired.

“This is a hard job to do if you haven’t got any training, so we want to see officers come through the basic classes as quickly as they can. That’s our goal,” Stinar said.

Of the six recently hired officers, the Missoula Police Department has five officers training at the academy with one officer transferring from another state. Three spots are on the waitlist for January.

Stinar is optimistic that Missoula will find officers to fill those spots and will move onto the reserved list.

It’s a waiting game, he said. “The calls don’t stop. Just because you have fewer first-responders doesn’t mean the call load’s going to go down. That’s why when [Brady] talks about burnout, that’s what it is. When you have folks that have to work overtime, longer shifts or respond to more calls, it can be a difficult thing to manage.”

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As Missoula’s law enforcement staffing study commences, police still encourage Westside residents to call with their concerns, no matter how minor the issue. And residents say they’ll work toward solutions with police officers and other organizations around the city.

Kathy Witkowsky, a Westside resident of 27 years, said that while more officers will help, the area’s issues are the result of a multi-pronged problem that needs a multi-pronged solution.

Living in a safer location close to neighbors, Witkowsky has been lucky not to have problems with trespassing and break-ins. However, she noticed that other Westsiders were struggling and decided to help lead a discussion before the City Council.

“I do believe that we have both the good brains and good hearts to address these issues, and that working together we can make the Westside a safe and beautiful place to live,” she said in an interview.

Residents will look to the city, the police department and other organizations for more solutions in the future, all while having faith in the police force’s diligence.

“Every time I’ve seen them in action, they’ve been super professional,” Witkowsky said, “and at a time when police forces across the country are coming under a lot of fire for behavior, I think our police department is a shining example of what a police department should be.”