The jail in Columbia Falls will close its doors when the new county 911 center begins operation this February, prompting the city to change its routine way of incarcerating prisoners.
To pay for its share of the 911 center, Columbia Falls used the funds that pay its local dispatchers, Police Chief David Perry said. Most of the Columbia Falls dispatchers will transfer to the new county facility, he said, but their absence means the jail will have to close.
Currently, the Columbia Falls dispatchers also act as jailers; they watch the prisoners from the building next door on a camera system. If there is a problem, the dispatcher would call an officer off the street to deal with it, Perry said.
Under the new system, anyone sentenced to jail in Columbia Falls will be taken to the county jail in Kalispell. But this can be time consuming, Perry said. A trip to Kalispell could take an hour and a half or it could take four hours, depending on the line at the booking desk, Perry said.
“If everybody’s using that jail it’s pretty easy to tie up,” Perry said.
To maintain officer presence in town, Perry said Columbia Falls would most likely hire two new police officers with money from the same fund that will pay the city’s share of the new county 911 center.
Columbia Falls City Judge Susan “Tina” Gordon said most of the prisoners at the local jail end up in the county facility anyway, with many staying in Columbia Falls only a couple days.
However, Perry said the jail serves another important purpose for the court.
“You lose your leverage for someone to come to court. Why would you come to court if there were no consequences?” Perry said.
Gordon said people will still go to jail for not showing up to court, they will just have to be moved to Kalispell. Perry also assured Columbia Falls residents that the streets will still be safe after the jail closes. Many of the prisoners are not a danger to the community, he said, but those who are will stay in custody.
“We will hold people that need to be held, regardless. If they’re a threat to a community or to themselves, we will hold them,” Perry said.
Keeping the jail open would mean coming up with more money, something Perry said is highly unlikely.
Flathead County residents passed a $6.9 million bond last fall to pay for the new 911 center, which will merge the county’s four emergency dispatch centers. The 11,800-square-foot building will handle all of the county’s emergency calls and act as headquarters for emergency operations countywide.
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