Tester visits with area law enforcement
Sen. Jon Tester made a visit to Glendive on Thursday, visiting with law enforcement officials from several counties about the challenges their industry is currently facing. The topics of discussion were wide and varied, ranging from recreational marijuana to mental health to man-power.
The roundtable discussion provided insights into current challenges from Dawson and surrounding counties, as well as the Eastern Montana Drug Task Force. This was the last stop of the senator’s tour of Eastern Montana this week, so now he will be taking the information he has gathered back to Washington to hopefully help develop additional tools that Montana law enforcement can make use of.
“We’re gonna have some fun. We’re gonna do some things for training, because I think that’s key,” Tester said. “It’s like throwing darts at a wall, I think there are plenty of places to go.”
One of the most significant points of discussion at Thursday’s meeting was the availability of manpower, or more appropriately the lack thereof, that law enforcement agencies are struggling with. Tester noted that this is likely the top priority issue for every agency he has met with this past week as many agencies struggle to operate adequetly with a minimal workforce.
“You gotta have folks on the beat,” Tester said.
Addressing the issue will be a difficult task, as the gathered officials shared their experiences of different problems that they believe are contributing to the issue.
Dawson county sherrif Ross Canen pointed to recreational marijuana as one point of contention. Noting that the Dawson County Correctional Facility is in need of corrections officers, he explained that he has had conversations with people who may have been interested in the job, but haven’t pursued it as the DCSO’s policy requiring drug testing.
“Truth is, we haven’t drug tested in a long time because we don’t want to lose people… We have five dispensaries in this town, and if you look at when they all started and our workforce problems, they happened about the same time,” Canen explained.
Other issues include media coverage of police, as pointed to by Lt. Tim Lingle of the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s office. With depictions of law enforcement officers being largely negative, especially over recent years, he believes this is driving people away from joining.
“The hiring pool, too, is shallow to non-existant because let’s face it, with all the media and stuff, no one wants to be a cop, nobody wants to work in law enforcement. We used to get applications all the time up in Roosevelt County and now it’s nothing,” Lingle said.
There are even issues at the law enforcement academy in Helena, some officials noted. Long wait times for new offciers to receive training and larger agencies trying to recruit graduates are just some of the things that have compounded to make recruiting more difficult for smaller agencies further away from the capital.
Praire County Sheriff Keifer Lewis, also pointed out that the academy no longer has pre-service due to its own staffing shortages. Pre-service is a program that allowed individuals to pay for themselves to attend the academy rather than having to join an agency first. According to Lewis, that program regularly provided a source of freshly trained officers for his department.
“I actually had to wait a whole year just to get a spot at the academy for one of my newest deputies. Now there’s no pre-service. You can’t hire anybody like that,” Lewis said.
Another major issue that law enforcement is dealing with is mental health cases. With very few mental health professionals and resources available in the state, those gathered around the table expressed concern that mental health cases are not being handled as well as they should be.
“It seems to me we’re going backwards in this state again, in that we’re finding more people that are being held in jail for mental health issues rather than the crime itself,” noted Richland County Sheriff John Dynneson.
The primary issue is that with few resources, law enforcement is having to wait extended periods of time before they can schedule mental health evaluations, meaning offenders are spending longer times in jail. There have even been plenty of cases where a case had to be dismissed because an evaluation was not performed within 120 days of an arrest, some officials reported.
Adding to all of this, the state hospital is in “crisis,” as one person at the meeting described it. The centers for Medicare and Medicaid revoked federal funding for the facility last year due to numerous reported safety violations. Should that crisis continue and those in need of mental health services continue to be stuck in county jails, county law enforcement forsee more issues in local facilities.
“We’re going to end up with some serious issues in these jails. We’re going to end up with suicides, people are just going to die in there. We can’t even get them out to take a shower and that kind of thing on a regular basis because they’re just so unpredictable,” Dynneson said.
Of course, substance abuse is also an issue making law enforcement difficult, especially as it influences some of the other issues they face. As Canen noted, even legal substances like marijuana have an impact on law enforcement agencies.
However, the effects of drugs and alcohol on the mental health crisis are particularly notable. Particularly, people will often turn to drugs or alcohol to help sooth their mental health issues, but then experience more issues due to their use, creating a “vicious cycle.”
“A lot of them are using drugs and alcohol to sooth their mental health issues. They don’t want to take the medication so they use drugs and alcohol,” Fallon County Sheriff Trent Harbaugh pointed out. Lingle pointed out that local jails have tried to provide more resources, such as counselors, but as both mental health and substance abuse problems continue to grow those counselors are not able to keep up.
What can be done?
With so many issues that will likely be difficult to address, Tester said he is looking forward to the challenge of providing help however he and Congress might be able to.
However, he noted that issues such as mental health are going to be difficult to address even for the feds.
“The mental health stuff is going to be a bit tougher because that comes out of the state hospital and that is a state entity. We’re also going to continue though to talk about what the federal government can do with jail space, and I’m not sure they can because they’re not in good shape either,” he said.