Heavens, our relationship with police is complex. They’re charged with protecting the safety of our public, and in a state with high rates of both gun ownership and suicide, a lot of that public safety-ing happens at the end of someone else’s weapon. Someone brought up this stat at the doors last week and I said I’d do some research—today the research popped up in my news feed, and it answered a lot of my own questions:
1) Why such a high rate *here*?
2) How often was the subject armed?
3) Are the shootings skewed along racial lines?
“I’ve personally noticed an increase in the level of violence, not only on the national level, but taking place in Montana,” Lockerby [Division of Criminal Investigation Administrator] said. “I feel that there’s a correlation between our drug problem, mental health issues, substance abuse and these rising levels of violence. And these trends we’re seeing validate that.”
I’m obviously not on the front lines like the police, but as part of my “learn everything I can about the city of Billings” research I’ve been touring nonprofits in the downtown/southside. (Related: if you administrate a nonprofit and you’re willing to tour me & brag about all the amazing things you do, PLEASE REACH OUT.) One thing that comes up over and over and over is the downtown core’s lack of both affordable and sober housing. Couple that with the shortage of counselors/therapists in Billings, medicaid shenanigans, meth and opioid epidemics, and you’ve got yourself a real party.
One of the most urgent issues Billings faces is the funding of our public safety departments (police & fire). You know when you first crack an egg into a pan, how it bleeds all over? That’s what Billings has done in the last 15 years: expand and expand and expand. This way, that way, police needed everywhere. A public safety mill levy hasn’t passed in all that time and part of our problem is simply that: our police are chronically understaffed. Further, things like “training in de-escalation techniques,” community policing, and trainings cost hard cash. If we expect a lot out of our public safety department—and we do—we have to match that expectation with enough financial support to provide the resources these departments need.
But public safety has other tendrils as well. Sober and affordable housing are both public safety issues. Because we see two cycles:
- People go through recovery/treatment but are then right back in their old environments. Sober housing provides a stop-gap between these two poles. Usually set up as a cluster of apartments, sober housing residents pay their own rent and utilities, but live in community with other people trying to maintain sobriety. Sober Living Houses (SLH) have been shown to reduce relapses and help people transition to self-sustained, substance-free living.
- People can’t afford to live downtown on a minimum wage salary. So they live out on the west end and take the bus. The bus breaks down. They lose their job. They lose their apartment. Just like that, a minimum wage worker can end up homeless; they might find another job, but that’s not going to solve the overall housing-affordability-public transport cycle.
There is nothing simple about any of this. There are multiple vectors contributing to the issues we see in our streets (including mental health, which deserves its own book), and it’s going to take action from each of these vectors to affect significant change. What that action looks like for the next few years will be determined by this election: there are all manner of “solutions” to these problems and the City Council is your vote. Do you support expanding the jail? Drug court? Criminalizing public drunkenness? What about subsidized sober housing (related examples: HUB or the Crisis Center)? K-9 dogs wandering the schools? Bike lanes to reduce cycling accidents?
Almost everyone I talk to agrees that we need to improve public safety. But the how is just as important: where we focus our resources. And why.