Crime on Missoula's Westside: Riding along with Missoula Police

It's a scene that has many Missoulians frustrated: a man passed out in front of a local business, charging his phone in the exterior outlet.

One Missoula police officer says that calls of trespass like these at stores, park pavilions and sometimes homes, are an all-too-common occurrence.

ABC FOX Montana continues our series on the growing crimes in Missoula's westside neighborhood.

We heard this week from those who are fed up with the problem and we heard from people who are often the subject of the blame.

Angela Marshall rode along with Missoula Police Officer Ethan Smith as he patrolled some of the city's most problematic areas to find out what is being done to address crime and keep Missoulians safe.

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"Officer Smith with the Police Department. Hey, we just got a call about you staying here. The folks that own this lot would prefer that you not camp here."

Missoula Police Crime Prevention Officer Ethan Smith responds to a report of illegal camping in Missoula's Grant Creek neighborhood.

People in not one, but two vehicles have made this parking lot their home.

"You're starting to congregate here."

The department's approach, he says, is to get these individuals to agree to move, and the officers keep track.

"People that we're dealing with five, 10 times a month throughout the city, then that tells us that we're simply shifting the problem and that this person isn't really being very cooperative and isn't making much of an effort," Officer Smith said.

The alternative?

A $100 fine, an ordinance enacted by the City of Missoula in January 2018.

He adds that's not always the best solution.

"Because, typically, if somebody is living in their RV or camper, they're not going to be able to pay the fine anyway."

Angela's ride-along takes them to another illegal camping zone: Hawthorne Street.

"It's natural that they would gravitate to the Poverello Center for meals and things like that," Officer Smith said. "But it kind of gives the Poverello Center a bad name in the neighborhood when people are camping nearby, because people just automatically assume that they're Poverello clients, which isn't always the case."

The Reserve Street bridge, the Kim Williams Trail, the railroad tracks behind Missoula Fresh Market and the California Street footbridge are also prime places for illegal activities. And in many cases, the illegal actions go beyond just camping where they're not allowed.

"We've gotten a lot of complaints over the past year or two where people no longer feel safe taking their dog for a walk or just going for an evening stroll along the riverfront trails.

These places are what Officer Smith tells Angela are targeted areas of enforcement.

For the past several months, additional officers have been patrolling them more frequently to cut down on crime.

Officer Smith added, "It's been plagued with graffiti and a lot of homelessness issues around it where there are a lot of drug use and alcohol use."

More often than not, he and his fellow officers are dealing with people, who are suffering from substance abuse problems or mental health disorders, or both.

Angela and Officer Smith drive to another area where an illegal camper is located and he described the scene.

"And there's a lot of foot traffic going in and out of the campers late at night. You have no idea who's living there. You're concerned about your kid's safety and well-being."

If they do repeatedly commit crimes under these influences, Officer Smith says that they have limited options.

Since Missoula does not have a detox facility they can only take them to the hospital or take them to jail.

"A lot of times, people think we can arrest our way out of this problem, but it's really not that simple," he explained. "When you take a severe alcoholic to jail, it takes a tremendous amount of resources from the sheriff's office to make sure that that person receives the medical attention that they need."

If a person is in a psychiatric crisis, he added, a stay at the hospital may only help temporarily.

"We're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on providing emergency services to a small amount of individuals who are creating a lot of headaches for us."

Finding long-term solutions to help these men and women is what Officer Smith says will benefit the police force and the future of the Missoula community.

"And so, we, as a police department, just put out fires, but what can we do to take a long-term approach and try to address these individuals addictions and other problems? Mental health issues?"

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ABC FOX Montana wanted to take a closer look at why putting a person in jail is not always the best solution to chronic bad behaviors.

So, Angela and Ben Wineman went to talk to the chief prosecutor for the City of Missoula, Keithi Worthington.

She told them that the City of Missoula has adopted two ordinances to address aggressive panhandling.

They were put in place so Missoulians would not be harassed when walking into a building or eating outside at a restaurant.

These ordinances, because they are misdemeanor offenses, only carry a fine-- no jail time.

If someone breaks a state law, disorderly conduct, trespass, theft or an even more severe charge, jail is an option.

"At some point, when you've imposed a couple days jail, then five days jail, then 10 days jail, our sentences tend to get progressive in terms of penalty, and that is having no affect," Worthington explained, "We try to encourage other solutions that get to the root of the problem."

And this time spent in jail is all at a cost to the taxpayer.

She says that the public defender's office has created what is called 'A Holistic Defense Program' in which a social worker will try and help these people address their bad behavior while living on the streets.

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Thursday night, Angela and Ben head to the Western Montana Mental Health Center, which is a facility dedicated to getting people drug, alcohol and mental health treatment.

They'll explain how these people are working to help people address their repeated bad behaviors and the challenges they face.

They will also talk with Missoula County Sheriff TJ McDermott to hear how the 'Jail Diversion' program is helping chronic offenders recover and costing the taxpayers less money.

And they'll we'll share a fascinating approach to cut down on crime in Missoula's parks.

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It's time for you to chime in.

Have your thoughts on how to reduce crime in Missoula's west side changed, knowing that jail isn't always a deterrent?

Do you have a question for Officer Smith and/or Prosecutor Keithi Worthington and the work that they do?

Join the conversation here.

And here is how you can watch previous stories in this series:

PART 1

PART 2

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