Nineteen Billings police officers are out on administrative leave—a number that police officials say is unparalleled within the department over the last 20 years.
The sudden shift in staffing is pinching the department’s resources at a time when it’s already been a challenge to find and hire new recruits.
“We are over 20 patrol officers who are not on the streets right now,” Lt. Matthew Lennick of the Billings Police Department said Wednesday.
The officers were placed on administrative leave after two officer-involved shootings in one week. Six of the 19 officers were involved in the May 23 shooting near the Fireside Lanes bowling alley, while the other 13 officers were placed on leave following the Monday night shooting on Burnstead Drive. In both incidents, police shot and killed suspects who they say were pointing or firing guns at police. In the Burnstead Drive incident, an officer was shot in the shoulder.
Lennick says it typically takes about two to three weeks for officers to return from administrative leave following an incident like an officer-involved shooting.
With this many officers out, the department is filling the gaps with other officers stretching into overtime.
“Our patrol shifts have somewhere between 24 and 30 officers total to cover 24/7, 7 days a week, so we’re almost down an entire shift is the way that’s working out,” Lennick said.
In general, the Billings Police Department is authorized to employ 167 officers—a number they strive to have on the force at all times. Currently, they’re sitting at 160 officers with a few pending retirements.
Even before the 19 officers were placed on leave, 167 is a number the department is struggling to hit.
“We definitely are still an employer of choice, I do believe that, but we definitely don’t get the number of applicants that we used to get,” Lennick said.
“When I got hired, there were a couple hundred people that tested for a couple positions. And now I have 10 positions and we have an open application process and I think our last count we had 20 for applications," he said.
Officer Tony Nichols has been with the Billings Police Department for 14 years and currently works as a patrol officer.
“It’s nice to go to a call, and it’s that person’s worse day they’ve ever dealt with, and you’re able to help them get their things back or help them with a family member who is having a problem. It’s good to have that feeling of accomplishment to help them through one of their worst days they’ve ever had,” Nichols said.
Nichols invites anyone who is considering applying to come to the station and do a ride-along with an officer. He highlights the benefits package, pool of colleagues, opportunities for advancement, and community service as perks of the job.
“I really enjoy the people I work with, the people I work for, I can’t think of a better department in the state,” Nichols said.
Lennick says it takes about 10 to 12 months to get a recruit through the hiring process and onto patrol, but applications are open for anyone who has considered a career in law enforcement.