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New study finds ways to improve law enforcement in Billings

Citizens surveyed on quality of police
Posted at 10:38 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 10:48:31-05

BILLINGS — A group of Billings residents surveyed in a Polco study gave the Billings Police Department high marks as far as trustworthiness but generally felt the city has a problem with crime, members of the Billings City Council heard at a Monday work session.

Michelle Kobayashi with Polco presented the survey data that had 503 mail-initiated responses from Billings residents. The survey had a 4 percent margin of error with a response rate of 17 percent from 3,000 people who were mailed an opportunity to participate. The survey was conducted from October to December 2020.

The survey highlighted that 63 percent of those surveyed rated the overall safety of Billings as good or excellent. Kobayashi said the citizen feeling of safety is lower than the national average and started decreasing in 2009 when compared with a similar study done that year.

"That data point is below the nation. People in Billings, Montana were saying that they felt less safe than other communities," Kobayashi said.

In the survey, people were asked to rate how safe they felt in specific areas of town rating them as very safe, somewhat safe, major problem or moderate problem.

The two that scored the highest were in neighborhoods at day with 92 percent and major recreational areas at day with 83 percent. Kobayashi said these rates are similar to those across the nation.

Those surveyed said they felt the least safe in downtown at night with 31 percent and recreational areas at night with 29 percent.

People were also asked to rate 35 specific public safety issues that had the most impact on their perceived level of safety. People were asked to rate the issues on whether they were a major problem, moderate problem, slight problem or not a problem.

Kobayashi ranked the top safety issues identified by respondents. At the top: drug abuse at 91 percent, burglaries/thefts/robberies at 86 percent, homelessness at 83 percent and impaired driving at 83 percent.

On the overall quality of police services, 76 percent of people surveyed rated services at good or excellent. Kobayashi said Billings' result in this category was much higher than national averages. The Billings Police Department got high marks from respondents on managing political protests, working to increase school safety and managing public order.

Billings police ranked under 50 percent in "excellent" or "good" ratings in showing citizens how to make neighborhoods safer, working with neighborhoods to solve problems and drug enforcement.

To read the full results of the Polco Billings National Police Services Survey, click here.

At the Council work session, City Administrator Chris Kukulski said the city has a subscription with Polco and will continue working with the company to get feedback from the community. He noted going forward, it would be wise for the survey to be more specific and reach out to the non-white population in Billings.

Members of the Council also heard findings from an extensive Center for Public Safety Management study that sought to find ways to improve the Billings Police Department.

Wayne Hiltz, team leader on the study, was the primary presenter to the Council. Hiltz said the purpose was to analyze staffing to see if it was appropriate for the workload, identify if the department operates with best practices and identify other ways to make the department more efficient.

The study identified about 100 specific things that City Council and police department leadership can work toward to improve law enforcement services. While the list is long, the study also emphasizes that Billings police generally provide a quality law enforcement service.

An overview of the study found three common challenges that officers regularly face in their work. The first is a lack of facilities or physical space. The Billings Police Department is spread across six different locations in the city.

A second common problem is insufficient staffing among mid-level staff and line-level staff, which includes positions like patrol officers and detectives.

The third challenge rests in the organizational structure of the department and how duties are distributed among staff. Hiltz noted one example is Animal Control, which is currently directly commanded by the assistant police chief instead of a lower-level officer.

Another item of concern the study found is that the Yellowstone County Detention Center is regularly over crowded. The county jail is used both by Billings police and Yellowstone County sheriff's deputies. When the jail is over crowded, it increases crime in the community and slows the court system, the study found.

Hiltz shared an anecdote he heard of a local individual who had 52 warrants for arrest (mostly for nuisance crimes), but the person couldn't be booked to jail due to a lack of space.

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said the study found the department would benefit from adding about 18 full-time staff members. The study found that number by analyzing the amount of time officers spent doing things like, briefings, court appearances, training, and report writing, also known as out of service time.

"If one excludes the personal time associated with breaks and meals and focuses only on the remaining categories, the time committed to these activities totals the equivalent of approximately 18 full-time officers," the study states.

The study found the city could benefit from the addition of police service officers, who could take on smaller tasks like cold burglary report writing and non-injury crash reports at a lesser cost to the city than a regular police officer.

St. John said the city used to have police service officers when he first started policing in Billings, but the department has since stopped using that position.

St. John told the Council that he's already been working on some things identified in the report that don't cost any money but still improve the police service. He noted there's been work started on centralizing the department's case management and data entry computer software for easier use. St. John also said he's started looking at some organizational structure changes that could be made.

Another Center for Public Safety Management study was conducted on the Billings Fire Department, and Kukulski said the results will be before the Council within the next 30 days.

To read the complete Police Operations and Data Analysis Report, click here.

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