Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Tester meets with local law enforcement in Bozeman

by Traci Rosenbaum

Law enforcement officers from Bozeman, Belgrade and Helena on Friday met with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to talk about the problems officers are seeing in their cities and counties and what the federal government could do to address them.

Tester opened by saying he wanted to listen more than talk, but he did have several questions for the assembled panel.

“The bottom line here is, all you got to do is pick up the papers in Montana, and you can see how tough your guys’ job is,” he said. “It’s a dangerous business, and we need to be able to support you to make sure you can do your job.”

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton spoke first, and mentioned fentanyl in his opening sentence. Talk of the drug permeated the entire discussion from there on out.

Dutton said fentanyl is coming up from the southern border of the U.S. and is moved by cartels. He said two of his organizations have asked President Joe Biden to classify these cartels as terrorist organizations so that law enforcement can have more resources to combat them.

Capt. Eric Paulson, who is part of the Missouri River Drug Task Force, said the seizures of fentanyl over the last three years have gone up astronomically.

According to Bozeman Police Chief Jim Veltkamp, from 2018 to 2020 about a third of a pound of fentanyl was seized in the entire state. In 2021, it was more than five pounds. In 2022, it was 36 pounds.

Paulson said naloxone, or NARCAN — an opioid blocker — has helped to save the lives of people who are overdosing. Dutton agreed but said it should not be seen as a way to enable an opioid habit.

Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Justin Schnelbach said the number of opioid overdoses is far underreported due to the wide distribution of NARCAN among drug users.

“If it weren’t for NARCAN, we would see far more overdoses and overdose deaths, and the epidemic would be far worse than it currently is,” Schnelbach said.

Fentanyl is extremely addictive, Schnelbach said, and users who may start out with one or two pills per day can get up to 30 or 40 pills a day as a heavy user.

Belgrade Police Chief Dustin Lensing said fentanyl is “out of control” with pill seizures in the thousands per year just in his jurisdiction.

“It’s been a trend that I’ve never experienced before in my career, and I’ve been here 22 years,” he said.

Multiple panelists said the penalties for drug possession need to be steeper as a deterrent to drug use.

“Last February, we had a conspiracy case where the gentleman was arrested with I think 14 stolen firearms and he received probation from the federal judge,” Schnelbach said, adding that they had also bought pounds of methamphetamine from the suspect.

Lensing said guns and drugs have always gone hand-in-hand, but he’s seeing more car break-ins where people are looking for guns to trade for drugs.

Dutton told Tester that drug users can be arrested and prosecuted, but law enforcement still needs to address the reasons people use drugs.

“The supply wouldn’t be there if the demand wasn’t there,” he said, “so what can we do either locally or federally to reduce the demand…how can we help there?”

Dutton said treatment and treatment courts are helpful, but the root causes run deeper. He said treatment programs have to be assessed to see if they’re being effective before more money is put toward them.

Dutton later talked about the objections to the militarization of law enforcement, saying that “It’s not a militarization. We value our employees, and that’s where we need the protection. And we’re not going to use it in an offensive manner, but a defensive.”

Several of the panelists expressed concerns over manpower, especially in the detention centers.

Lensing said his office can’t keep up with Belgrade’s exploding population as far as equipment, vehicles, office space and staff.

Growth in the Gallatin Valley is good, Paulson said, but with it comes with challenges. Housing in Gallatin County is an issue, he said, and the sheriff’s office has had challenges with recruitment and retention because of that.

The other issue, according to the panelists, is the grants law enforcement agencies can get from the federal government.

Dutton said many grants that require a 50% match from the local agency can be hard to match with tight budgets.

Veltkamp said the grants can be beneficial, but the city needs to have a source of funding to sustain them when they sunset. Even applying for grants can be prohibitive when a department doesn’t have the staff to do the necessary paperwork, Veltkamp said. He asked Tester to do anything he can to streamline the process and make the funding sustainable and with fewer strings attached.

All the panelists talked about the recent spate of violence in Four Corners, Billings, Helena, Great Falls and other cities around the state.

“They’re just all starting to run together,” Paulson said, “so you’re seeing the frequency of this violence, and there seems to be a nexus between it all: mental health and narcotics. And whatever resources we can get to address those issues, as well, would be phenomenal.”

Tester ended the panel by encouraging law enforcement agencies to reach out with the questions and suggestions. He said he talked to the officer in Great Falls who was recently shot by a suspect.

“We just got to figure this out,” Tester said. “You start losing police officers to violence, it’s not a good look. It’s not good for the economy, it’s not good for you guys’ recruitment purposes. It’s not good for your nightly sleep. It’s not good for anybody.”

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