The Politics Of Pretending: Crime On The Rise In Great Falls
City Commission, Great Falls

The Politics Of Pretending: Crime On The Rise In Great Falls

Three young men beat someone up and stole his shoes and coat on February 26 right in front of the friendly IGA store off 25th Street North and 6th Avenue North here in Great Falls. Passersby watched it happen. Someone in the store called 911, but no passersby moved to stop the thugs, no doubt out of fear for their own safety.

A week later a young female clerk at a local store in Great Falls told me she doesn’t like to “go out” because she worried about “getting beat up, especially downtown at night.” Not long ago, she was on a GF transit bus and a man on the bus was passed out.  She informed the driver of this passenger, and when the bus stopped, the drooling man arose from his stupor and started screaming at her. It was a scary scenario. This same young female said she was also recently surrounded and intimidated by a group of panhandlers on the lower south side. She suggested that it’s time we start doing something about the growing crime and poverty problems in our community.

Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about another vehicle being stolen or burglary or child abuse or assault or a meth or heroin bust or a drunken rampage. More and more indigents, transients, homeless, addicts and out-of-work are wandering our streets and public places.

Here are three questions for all Great Falls citizens:

What’s happening to our town?

What are we going to do about it?

Why do some of those in positions of leadership and influence seem so blissfully unaware?

Great Falls is still, for the most part, a good place to live, raise and educate a family, work and recreate. But the not so hidden secret is that we are experiencing an increase in poverty, crime and family and drug abuse without a commensurate increase in population and tax base to deal with those problems.

Indeed, our local CASA-Can Facebook page points out that in 2016, there were 700 children in the foster care system in Cascade County alone. By February 16, 2017, 70 more children were added to the ranks. 

The Great Falls Police Department has their hands full. In a report to the community on January 30, 2017, Chief Bowen reported that the GFPD “ended 2016 with a total of 42,140 calls for service. Our teams were busy with this massive increase of 4,066 more calls for service in 2016 than in 2015. As we prepare our year-end reports we found there may be several factors playing into the increase.

“In May we implemented the Data Driven Approach to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) patrol model and designated almost 200 square blocks in the heart of our community as the DDACTS Zone. Officers assigned to this area are dedicated to being highly visible with frequent traffic enforcement.  

“We also experienced a surge in stolen autos,” Bowen stated in the report.  

It is not immediately clear whether one can interpret the implementation of the DDACTS model as a reason for the massive increase in calls for service, or whether Chief Bowen is simply noting the GFPD response to the problem. But the question remains: what do we do about the increase in calls for service?

First, let’s not pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. The mural of Charlie Russell with a flying saucer hovering over his head painted on the North parking garage looks cool and upscale modern, but doesn’t fix what’s going on inside the parking garage. It doesn’t take much “ear to the ground” to hear citizens’ concerns about downtown parking garage safety or the serious issues surrounding increasing problems of vagrancy and drug abuse associated with both parking garages. It isn’t a new problem, but it is a worsening problem. 

Real solutions are not obvious or simple. There will be no real solutions, however, without solid public discourse, acknowledgement by the powers that be, and more options than glossing over the existing problem with a pretty paint job. We have to stop playing the politics of pretending that everything is great in Great Falls.

It’s commendable that the GFPD implemented DDACTS and offers a Citizen’s Academy to provide interested citizens an education in how the police department operates and the policing challenges our community faces. Still, there needs to be more viable solutions to the rise in crime.

Let’s clearly define and prioritize the most pressing safety issues in our city. The mayor and city commission have made so much ado over cell phone use by licensed drivers and so little ado has been made about the increasing overall crime rate, as well as the increase in serious crimes, in Great Falls.

So what are we going to do about it? For starters, we need to clearly define and prioritize the set of crime and safety issues so apparent in our city. The continuing word from local city commissioners and the Great Falls Tribune is that the overall outlook for Great Falls is great and getting greater. It’s so great in fact, that the City Commission has addressed increased fines for drivers using cell phones because, well, cell phone use by drivers must be one of the single most pressing issues in our fair city.

Our mayor even goes so far as to take credit for instituting the driver cell phone ban when in fact he was not even an elected commissioner at the time the ordinance was initially passed. In a January 13, 2017 article in the Great Falls Tribune, the mayor is quoted:

‘My goal in putting it in place (driver cell phone ban) was to alert the community and others who visit Great Falls that we insist on safe driving habits.’

The ban on using a cell phone while driving was passed by the city commission in July, 2012. Kelly was not appointed to the city commission until December, 2012 and was not sworn in until January, 2013.

The point here is that the mayor and city commission have made so much ado over cell phone use by licensed drivers and so little ado has been made about the increasing overall crime rate, as well as the increase in serious crimes, in Great Falls.

While the mayor pushes for murals on the parking garage, takes credit for a cell phone ban while driving, and discusses options for more office space for a growing city government, perhaps there should be public discussion from the city commission about safety issues and how to bolster support for the GFPD.

Perhaps the surest way to deal with the increasing crime problems in Great Falls is to target more resources to law enforcement. Is it a stretch to consider that one of the main challenges for our GFPD is that we simply don’t have enough police on the beat? Or do we? Would increases in our PD force help reduce crime, or are there other models we can draw from? Is it time to review our GFPD policies and our city ordinances on how we deal with some of these issues?

No solutions will be easy because implementation will mean prioritizing our city budget to lean more towards safety and local law enforcement. It shouldn’t require yet higher local taxes, fees or additional levies. However, the city is already discussing increased staffing needs and a resulting increase in office space. While the Children’s Museum as a possible space for future development of city offices has been the topic of heated public discussion and discussion among the city commission, there has currently been no clear information to the public about exactly what the commission may propose. Clearly there has been discussion about new construction.

From a Feb. 17 article in the Great Falls Tribune:

Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly said, ‘It would be silly to start a big construction project if the museum comes to us when the lease expires in ’18 and says they’ve outgrown the space.’

Actually, it would be silly given the current increase in crime in Great Falls to prioritize expanded office space over additional law enforcement resources.

While tax hikes and special elections for mill levies is business as usual, citizens of Great Falls may be feeling a bit pinched. The school system just passed a $100 million levy last fall and is prepping the public to request two additional million dollar levies this spring. County commissioners just announced a possible $450,000 request for a mill levy to help fund the Great Falls Development Authority. City taxes and utilities increase annually on homeowners’ property taxes. There seems to be no government agency that isn’t holding a hand out for more, yet wages and job prospects in Great Falls remain fairly stagnant.

Which brings us back to a need for open and honest public discussion and the need to prioritize the most pressing issues facing the good governing of our city.

In conclusion, Great Falls is still a marvelous place to live, work and raise a family but we have to be honest and vigilant. We should be optimistic about our potential but realistic about our current situation. Our community is not well served by those who gloss over or try to spin reality into a cheerful but fake assessment of what actually is. We can do better.

March 8, 2017

About Author

Rick Tryon Rick Tryon is a Great Falls entrepreneur, singer-songwriter and pundit. Helping Montana become an even greater place to live, play and work is Tryon's passion and four generations of his family currently call Great Falls 'home.'


10 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Politics Of Pretending: Crime On The Rise In Great Falls”

  1. don petrini says:

    i think your 2012 date is wrong rick

  2. I would have to agree that our police department is seriously overworked. There is no question that we need more officers. I am questioning the additional staff the city is suggesting they need and the reason for the increased office space. Our population has not grown, and the County seems to be maintaining its staff size, why can’t the City?

    I would not question the need for additional police officers. We have a rampant meth problem on our hands, not to mention child abuse cases, which is simply horrific. It seems Great Falls is a dumping ground for sexual predators.

    The safety of our residents should be a priority. The Great Falls Police Department needs more officers and we as a City should recognize that and support them. In my opinion, for the small size of the department and the high rate of crime, we are very lucky to have such a diligent police force and we as a community need to provide them with the tools they need.

    If our City Commissioners and our Mayor are not willing to take a hard look and direct funds to our police department, perhaps we should take a hard look at our City Commissioners.

    Kelly Parks

  3. Lt. Colonel (Retired, Army) Richard Liebert says:

    Thanks Rick, some very valid points for discussion and debate here in our neighborhood councils and boards, and of course the city commission and county.

  4. Tim Hodges says:

    Rick; I question your assertion: “Perhaps the surest way to deal with the increasing crime problems in Great Falls is to target more resources to law enforcement.” Increasing law enforcement resources can reduce crime, but it is not a certainty. Law enforcement response is treating a symptom rather than treating the disease. What can be done to ensure that any individual seeking addiction treatment can find and afford it? What can be done to ensure that kids of the over-worked working poor have access to programs to help keep them going the right direction?

  5. Kameron says:

    I have always had a love/hate relationship with Great Falls. On the one hand it’s been something I have known for along time and the memories made here are even better. But on the other darker side the effects of negligence and stubbornness to keep Great Falls a “small town” has hindered people from moving up within the community. People that go off and become successful never want to come back because they see this city as a lost cause. I am beginning to become one of them. There is nothing job wise here, other than something with a trade that someone would have to learn. I can’t afford to buy a house for my family of five even with a position within the national guard which in itself seems to be on the verge of departing somewhere else. The neglect shown for the industrial buildings just left to rot shows that not even the people that can make a difference care about this place. It’s all about how can we get enough money from the lower class that are addicted to gambling, drugs, and alcohol. For years and years I’ve heard of businesses wanting to come here and being turned away by steep costs and misuse of our local government. I am very close to leaving this place where almost all of my family live.

    • Tim Hodges says:

      Kameron, I can see some of what you are talking about, but I also think that it is easy to view the grass as being greener. The thing that always amazes me is the amount of good industrial construction there is. Take an hour and drive from the Agritech industrial park, go up Havre hill, then back down and out the northwest bypass frontage road and there must be 30 new industrial/commercial developments in the last 5-7 years. I think its OK that the old buildings don’t get renovated. With modern mechanical systems and energy consideration, its much more cost effective to build new.

      I grew up in Great Falls in the 70’s. The river was dirty, there wasn’t much for recreation. There weren’t enough motels. I went off, became successful, and couldn’t wait to move back.

    • Jeni Dodd says:

      Exactly Kameron–well stated!

  6. Cory says:

    The crime increase in great falls is a direct result of the shortage of jobs whom pay a living wage. When both parents have to work 2 or 3 jobs, working 60+ hours a week just to make ends meet. Who’s taking care of the kids? Who’s raising the kids? It’s not a day care because alot can’t afford the high prices for daycare. The kids basically take care of them selves running with other kids who are left to them selves while the parents work way more then they need to, for way to low of wages. Most people don’t steal for the fun of it they steal out of necessity. More police would be nice and would definitely benefit great falls but crime will not go down until the city of great falls starts investing in its citizens by recruiting new companies that can commit to high paying jobs. The city will have to put citizens first when the question of should we allow this buisness to come here and put their tax revenue last when they make that decision. Bozeman is booming and billings is booming because they work with businesses to build the economy.

  7. Doc holiday says:

    It starts with the people..the worst thing u can do is nothing at all..it starts with 1 person taking action…

  8. J. C. Kantorowicz says:

    As long as you are criticizing the Mayor, let us not forget the Million dollar pedestrian walkway that no one wanted or the designated bike paths that no one uses. It is all about priorities and it seems that the Mayor’s priorities do not involve a safe community. But….. It is a shame to waste this “grant” money!

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