Kalispell Police Attribute Crime Increase to Poor Economy

By Beacon Staff

On Dec. 15 the Kalispell Police Department engaged in a standoff lasting three and a half hours on the west side of the city with Steven R. Flores, a 41-year-old man authorities believed was armed and possibly suicidal. Temperatures were frigid, and negotiators suffered a delay when Flores’ cell phone ran out of power. Police had to wait while he recharged his battery – but Flores eventually surrendered without incident or injury.

While the standoff ended peacefully, Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset said part of the reason Flores was so agitated had to do with the local economic situation.

“He made some comments that he was stressed out because a lot of his friends were losing their jobs or had been laid off,” Nasset said.

Stress over layoffs spreading throughout the valley, coupled with the increase in drinking that usually coincides with the holiday season, has resulted in an uptick in serious crimes for the Kalispell Police Department, and it’s a trend Nasset doesn’t expect to see ending any time soon.

“There are a lot of people that are really on edge,” he added. “When the economy is worse, our business is more, and the numbers really substantiate that trend.”

The night of the standoff, Nasset reported to the Kalispell City Council that over the previous week his department handled: nine drug and alcohol-related arrests; six charges of driving under the influence; six thefts; seven domestic family member assaults; and four mental health-related calls. And he expects calls for service to the police – which can be anything from a kitten in a tree to shots fired – to exceed 26,000 by the end of the year, a new department record.

Nasset emphasized that things aren’t getting out of control.

“I wouldn’t say we’re seeing a huge crime spree,” he said. “We’re seeing increases.”

But Nasset expects these increases to continue so long as the economy deteriorates. He has been lobbying hard to maintain his department’s current size at a time when the cash-strapped city government has been contemplating public safety layoffs to bring the general fund under control. Kalispell’s 34-member police department staff is “running from call to call,” Nasset said, when he would prefer to move more pro-actively to head off tense situations before they result in crime.

At the county level, Sheriff Mike Meehan has noted a higher degree of violent crimes in 2008, but overall he hasn’t noticed any unusual trends corresponding with the recession, saying “the logs have been fairly quiet over the last couple of weeks.”

“Looking at the whole year, we’ve definitely had more serious, violent crime than we’ve had in the past,” Meehan said. “Domestic violence is up, but it always goes up right around the holidays.”

Like Nasset, Meehan’s deputies walking the beat detect an anxiety among the valley’s citizens.

“They really don’t know if they’re going to be losing their house or losing their car,” Meehan said. “Every night when they turn on the news they’re hearing about doom and gloom and it’s definitely affecting people.”

A recent job opening in the Sheriff’s office’s reception area received 130 applicants, Meehan added, compared to the usual five or six applicants for department vacancies – an indication of the economic anxiety pervading the Flathead.

In Whitefish, Police Chief Bill Dial has not seen a big change in crime rates, or the seriousness of crimes, saying he expects any trend might be more apparent in Kalispell, with its larger population. But he is also aware of the increase in casino robberies that occurred across the valley this year. As a result, Whitefish Police have stepped up patrols in casinos, and Dial has officers spending more time talking to casino employees and managers about anything unusual.

Like Nasset and Meehan, Dial intends to be ready should a more serious, or sustained increase in crime develop in the Flathead.

“I do have a concern about it, and that’s why were being pro-active about it,” Dial said. “We’re trying to get ahead of the curve.”

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