Hands-Off At Homeless Camp While SWAT Responds To Burlington Street

by William Skink

How is the criminal justice system adapting to a global pandemic? Last month the Montana Supreme Court directed cities and counties to release inmates “if possible”. Here is a portion from the Missoulian article (emphasis added):

The courts have largely continued without flinching at the coronavirus pandemic, although every part of the criminal justice system is taking precautions as Montana’s COVID-19 case count climbs, particularly in large urban judicial districts. County clerks are taking measures to protect their staff by limiting face time with the public. Law enforcement is scaling back who gets taken to jail and who can be turned loose after a citation. The Missoula public defender’s office last week filed about 55 motions to release clients in custody due to COVID-19, according to regional deputy Jennifer Streano. Twenty-two were granted, Streano said, while a few others are yet to see a ruling.

I’ve been thinking more about how law enforcement is responding to situations (or not) because of two very different approaches to community concerns.

For those without homes, the approach is hands-off. The encampments under and around the Reserve Street bridge have grown significantly over the last few months, since the Poverello Center was forced to limit how many people can access the shelter at night.

Theft, drug abuse and trash are not important enough for law enforcement to deal with, so the camps are growing and with that growth comes problems that first responders do have to deal with, like fires.

Last November there was a fire that necessitated a response. There was another fire in February. And a fire yesterday:

Investigators are looking into what started a fire at a campsite near the Reserve Street bridge Tuesday evening.

Dispatch got the call about the blaze just before 6:30 p.m. Missoula Fire Department crews responded and put out the fire in about 5 minutes, Missoula Fire Department Capt. Kory Garman said.

Garman said the fire burned about a 20-foot circle, including a campsite and someone’s personal belongings.

What is the Reserve Street area going to look like this summer? With more people losing jobs and homes, growth is guaranteed. And I expect that hands-off approach to continue.

For people who do have homes, there is much more that law enforcement is willing to do.

For example, last Sunday there was an argument between neighbors on Burlington Street. Someone called the police and somehow the police got it in their heads that a gun was present.

The response was an hours long standoff with SWAT that lasted into the early hours of Monday morning when apparently police detectives got involved and determined no crime was committed and no gun was present:

Missoula’s Police Chief shed some light on an incident that blocked off an entire block in Missoula on Sunday night.

Chief Jaeson White says that police were dispatched to the area when a disturbance was reported in the area with the possibility of firearm being present.

SWAT units with special training in negotiating tactics were then called in to attempt to make contact with the woman who were able to talk to the subject over the phone.

Police then conducted an investigation into what caused the call and determined no crimes had been caused and determined it best to move on from the neighborhood.

This response provides an interesting juxtaposition to the hands-off approach police are taking with the theft, drug abuse and trash at the homeless camps. What will it take to change this dynamic?

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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1 Response to Hands-Off At Homeless Camp While SWAT Responds To Burlington Street

  1. There’s a leadership issue with MPD. Where is it coming from?

    You might remember that in December, Engen hired a new chief of police, Californian Jaeson White. He didn’t take over until March. At that point, Mike Coyler stepped down. I wonder how those two men get along.

    A week or two before that, we have the fake story about a police car having a window shot out, one that was proved to be complete nonsense. This required locking down downtown for hours and forcibly closing businesses.

    In January, a police officer shot a man that was standing outside a trailer.

    Then this weekend we have another huge standoff and closure of streets to deal with this fake story about a woman having a gun. She was smart to stay in her home; I’m sure the police would have violently tackled her if she’d come out.

    The police are not winning the public battle for hearts and minds. Personally, I think it’s years of not having enough officers to deal with the monumental problems here.

    Here’s how one female officer described it in October 2018:

    “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.”

    I doubt it’s gotten better.

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