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Billings police, downtown alliance aiming to improve public safety in city’s core

Posted at 6:03 PM, Nov 14, 2018
and last updated 2019-07-17 14:51:05-04

BILLINGS- More than 100 people gathered Wednesday at the Northern Hotel in Billings to discuss how to bolster public safety in the downtown core with the Billings Police Department and the Downtown Billings Alliance.

Chief Rich St. John spoke about the challenges facing Billings, specifically the vagrant and migrant population, and how these issues are being addressed.

“Our ultimate goal is not to fill the jail up with people who are homeless, who are intoxicated in public, or who are mentally ill. That is not the place for them. We need to get them to treatment,” said St. John.

One way the department has been working to achieve this goal is the Motivated Alcohol Alternative Program, which aims to send cited individuals into treatment instead of jail.

St. John noted the success of this program, but also pointed out issues that slow the process. These include a lack of clean and sober housing as well as Montana’s lack of public-intoxication legislation.

St. John also cautioned people against confusing passive members of the homeless population with aggressive and law-breaking panhandlers.

Downtown Billings Alliance Executive Director Katy Easton emphasized the need for communication and collaboration going forward.

“We need to be able to listen, to acknowledge what the challenge is, and we need to be able to work together to find a solution,” said Easton.

Easton also said that citizens becoming familiar with the designated downtown resource officers and feeling comfortable speaking up if they have public safety concerns will be key in addressing public safety in the future.

The meeting highlighted property crimes as one of the key challenges affecting the perception of public safety in downtown Billings. And, thanks to longtime downtown business Buchanan Capital, a private contractor was brought in to discuss some of the possible solutions.

Mark Johnson is one of three crime-prevention-through-environmental-design experts in Montana and Wyoming. Johnson is a 20-year veteran of the Bozeman Police Department and now runs a private security firm specializing in these assessments. He spoke about some of the basic principles of design to prevent crime, while showing examples from the Billings community.

“Having clear windows so people can see out of the business, trimming vegetation so it is not covering up lighting or windows. A lot of times, it is simple maintenance fixes or replacing those bulbs that are burnt out on street corners and on buildings because lighting is the number one deterrent of criminal activity when it comes to crimes of opportunity,” said Johnson.

St. John said one Billings police officer is certified in crime prevention through environmental design, and more will be trained in the technique to address future public-safety concerns.