Incident Volume Increases as Law Enforcement Navigates Complicated Landscape

Increased calls for interpersonal disputes, protocols altered by coronavirus, exposures and confirmed cases among staff, and a sense of ‘negativity’ toward police wearing on local authorities as pandemic drags on

By Andy Viano
A Flathead County Sheriff's Office vehicle. Beacon file photo

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office responded to 819 more calls for service between May and July than one year prior, according to internal data, a spike driven by interpersonal conflict that comes as pandemic-induced stress simmers across the country.

The increase in incident responses is occurring as law enforcement agencies fill shifts vacated by coronavirus-related medical absences, adjust internal practices to ward off the virus and find themselves in the middle of the country’s heated political environment, which includes conversations over police tactics and reform. All of it, Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said, has combined “to add stress upon a department,” and his office is no exception.

“There’s stress for anybody that works in the field now,” he said.

Heino worked at the sheriff’s office for 15 years before being elected to the top position in 2018, and throughout those years he’s seen the valley change and grow, part of what he identifies as driving up the department’s workload. And while the seasonality of the population in the Flathead Valley makes summer the busiest time of year for law enforcement every year, the summer of 2020 has stood out, even as passenger numbers at Glacier Park International Airport have ticked down and visitation numbers at Glacier National Park are down slightly as well.

Heino’s 63-officer department responded to 11,955 incidents between May and July this year, up from 11,136 calls in the same period in 2019 and marking the highest total in at least the last four years. And that 7.4% rise understates significant increases in certain types of conflicts. Flathead County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) responses to disorderly behavior (87.8% increase from 2019), trespassing (22.7%), disturbances (20.4%) and suspicious behavior (8.9%) are up, and, according to Heino, this year’s calls more often involve a weapon of some kind and mental health issues, with more people in “crisis” during the pandemic.

At the Kalispell Police Department (KPD), May to July incident responses are actually down, but two categories — disorderly conduct (105.2%) and assaults (60%) — have risen sharply. The overall dip owes in large part to a major drop in theft and traffic-related calls for service, which is mirrored in the FCSO numbers.

Violent crime overall in the Flathead Valley, however, has not risen during the pandemic, unlike another major county in Montana, Yellowstone. That county, which includes Billings, has seen a 20% spike in violent crime, much of it connected to illegal narcotics.

As the types of crimes and number of calls have changed during the pandemic, departments have had to work to adjust as rules and policies regarding coronavirus have been implemented. The FCSO has confirmed a small number of positive COVID-19 tests among its ranks and a few other known exposures, including one deputy who attended the mostly mask-less Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota in August that spawned outbreaks in multiple states.

Personal travel, Heino said, has been the primary driver of coronavirus exposures in his office, although he believes his deputies have responded appropriately when they return to Flathead County. He added that there have been no signs of the virus spreading within the department since deputies who may have been exposed are self-quarantining.

The KPD has had one positive test among its officers and a handful of known exposures, but like the FCSO has seen no intra-office spread. Chief of Police Doug Overman said his department’s officers have done their best to operate safely with coronavirus in mind, including asking for identifying information verbally during traffic stops, but that the nature of the work makes eliminating any exposure near impossible.

“One of the things we have to realize is during this process there were just going to be times where we couldn’t control that,” Overman said. “There are just going to be times when we have to take that risk to our own wellbeing.”

For Heino, who as the county sheriff is a publicly elected official, the pandemic has also kept him from interacting with his constituents and made it more difficult to stay connected to the community his office serves.

“I am used to being out in the community a lot, at events, school events, all of these public things that occur every year,” he said. “And so when you’re trying to talk to your community about issues or interacting with them to make sure they are getting law enforcement services or they have questions on the law enforcement side … you’re very limited.”

Heino also oversees the Flathead County Detention Center, and so far that facility has been untouched by the coronavirus, unlike facilities in Yellowstone and Cascade counties that have seen major outbreaks. No positive tests have been collected among jail staff or inmates in Flathead County, and a strict protocol is in place that has helped that happen.

Prisoners are housed together in groups of up to 10 people and gradually moved together for the first 10 days, with any symptomatic inmates being pulled out, the theory being that any COVID-19 outbreak could be restricted to that small group and not reach the general population. So far, it has been successful, along with more aggressive cleaning including a chemical mister used regularly to sanitize the facility. In addition, the jail has managed to stay well under capacity (around 154 total inmates) in recent weeks by more frequently transferring prisoners to state facilities or other jurisdictions. There were 86 inmates as of Sept. 3, a number that fluctuates frequently but has stayed at a level where some distancing and isolation can be maintained. The jail is typically most crowded on the weekend.

In addition to the pandemic, Heino also acknowledged that calls for police reform in the wake of multiple killings of black men and women by law enforcement across the county have had a psychological impact on his office. There is “a lot of community support for law enforcement” in the Flathead Valley, Heino said, but the sense that law enforcement is perceived negatively nationwide has been wearing on him and his staff.

“Especially in law enforcement you feel like you’re constantly being scrutinized,” he said. “That’s part of the job in general, but the majority of the time you don’t pull up social media or media outlets and see negativity about law enforcement. There’s cities being burned all over and just hatred of law enforcement.”

All of it — that feeling of “hatred,” the strain of COVID-19, the rising number of calls for service and more — has Heino eyeing the end of 2020 and, someday, the end of the upheaval brought by the pandemic.

“There’s almost this unknown,” Heino said. “There’s no endgame … there’s no idea what the future’s going to bring at this point. That’s the struggle I see with lots of people.”

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