Dealing with the Downtown Mob

By Beacon Staff

At 3 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 6, George Miletich received a call from the Kalispell Police Department. Someone had thrown a cinderblock through the back window of his Music One Workshop business. Miletich was ticked, but not really surprised.

For weeks, Miletich and other downtown business owners – as well as nearby residents – had been dealing with an unruly group that was gathering nightly at the corner of Main and Third streets near Valley Bank and Genki Restaurant.

Earlier in the summer, the group was manageable. But by late July, it had swelled to 60 or more. They would arrive at about 9:30 p.m. and stay until 3 a.m. or later, Miletich said. Cars stopped by often and business owners suspected drug activity.

“It’s weird, they’re like vampires,” Miletich said.

Business owners started meeting to discuss how to deal with the growing mob, which had grown increasingly disruptive. Mike McFarland, owner of Sykes’ Grocery and Market, said he had a hard time sleeping at night at his nearby residence because of the noise, which largely consisted of a steady stream of shouted profanities. He also heard the cinderblock crash through Miletich’s window.

An air conditioning unit on top of Genki was overturned. Apparently, the group had begun to congregate on Main Street’s rooftops. Also, a sign was damaged, litter was scattered through streets and members of the rowdy group were defecating and urinating everywhere. At the very least, it wasn’t a pleasant scene for a passerby.

“I’ve known people who walked through there and felt threatened,” McFarland said.

So the business owners went to the police department, which sent officers to the scene. But Police Chief Roger Nasset said his officers faced obstacles. Even if illegal activity is suspected, police can’t do anything to disperse a crowd on a sidewalk – a public right-of-way – unless a crime is observed. The throngs on Third and Main seemed to know to keep to the sidewalks and avoid the private parking lots. Furthermore, loitering and vagrancy laws have widely been ruled unconstitutional.

Nasset sent extra patrols to the area and tried a “bunch of different avenues” to watch the group, though he wouldn’t say exactly what those avenues were. Eventually the police work paid off – in a one-week period in early August police made 24 arrests.

Charges ran the gamut: obstructing a peace officer; indecent exposure; disorderly conduct; unlawful purchase of alcohol; driving under the influence; curfew violation; outstanding warrants; drug charges; open containers and assault.

Nasset characterized the offenders as mostly young adults who seem to be drifters. The group had people as young as teenagers and as old as 35 or 40, he said. Many of them spend the daytime in Woodland Park, he said, and then migrate to Main and Third at night. He said “10 percent are employed in some form or fashion, and the rest don’t have anything to do but hang out and cause problems.”

“It’s one of those ongoing things that we’re going to be persistent with because the community shouldn’t have to put up with that,” Nasset said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make them act like responsible adults – and most of them are adults.”

Since the string of arrests, the group has dissipated, though not disappeared, business owners say. It’s likely many of them have moved on to another location, which raises a dilemma for city officials: They’re bound to run into this again in the future and with the current rules on the book, how can police properly deal with groups that assemble for illegal activity?

“This is probably the summer of Third Street problems and it will move on to somewhere else,” Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball said.

Harball said the city court would throw out a loitering case. To a certain degree, he said the city encourages loitering by placing benches on the street. The loitering argument carries a large gray area that’s hard to prosecute. Harball said: “It’s kind of like saying there’s no loitering at the park.”

“The idea is that you have the right to be there,” Harball said. “But you don’t have the right to break the law there.”

One way to deal with situations like these, Harball said, is to require permits to congregate on public right-of-ways in the name of public safety. Other cities do it and Harball said Kalispell will explore this option. Even if the permit is free, its requirement allows police to confront a group like the Third Street crowd and ask for proof of the permit. If they don’t have it, police can ask them to disperse.

Harball said another option is constant police presence, but “we don’t have the manpower to do that.” Indeed, Nasset said his department was spending money on overtime by sending extra patrols to Third and Main. Video cameras are a possibility as well, Harball said, but they often get vandalized. The city’s existing disorderly conduct law helps govern noise complaints.

“It’s not a huge hit but they have to come and see a judge and explain why they were shouting profanities,” Harball said.

Discussions have already begun to figure out how to deal with similar situations in the future. Miletich had a conversation with City Manager Jane Howington and Nasset met with the downtown Business Improvement District board.

Miletich said disruptive people have gathered downtown before, but he has never seen such huge numbers on the sidewalk as this summer.

“If they just get moved on, they’re just going to be somebody else’s problem,” Miletich said.

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