Law Enforcement

Resource-strapped Sheriff’s Department Sees Surge in Violent Crimes

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office is dealing with a high volume of “dramatic” calls while working with fewer resources

By Maggie Dresser
Flathead County Sheriff’s Office law enforcement officers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In the last year, Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino has watched 11 staff members retire from the department and he’s gotten 1,000 more dispatch calls than the year before, all while dealing with a slew of tourists and new residents as violent crimes dramatically increase in the Flathead Valley.

“We’re working a lot more with a lot less,” Heino said.

Aside from the valley’s population boom, which means more calls to the sheriff’s office, Heino says certain trends like early retirement are impacting the department. Historically, Heino says law enforcement officials retired after 25 to 28 years, but lately he’s noticing folks retire after 20 years.

“They’re done,” Heino said. “It could be the stresses of the career but we’ve seen a lot of changes in law enforcement.”

With steady turnover, Heino says there’s always somebody in training and there are seven months from the time a deputy is hired until they have their own vehicle and can work without supervision.

At a full staff, there are 63 sworn deputies and there are roughly 59 right now. With four in training and a few on military leave, the sheriff’s office is down about 10 deputies and they are looking for another co-responder from Western Montana Mental Health Center, Heino said.

In addition to a shortage of deputies, the Flathead County Jail is down six detention officers, leaving the current staff to deal with an average of 100 inmates and secure the facility.

“The main struggle we see is the detention side of things,” Heino said. “We used to get 30 applications and now we get four.”

To address the shortage, the sheriff’s office has shuffled around positions and while also utlizing overtime pay and the Flathead County Sheriff’s Posse.

After more than a year of violent crimes, including a shooting at a gym parking lot in Kalispell and an alleged domestic violence-related murder, Flathead County is following a nationwide trend of violent crimes, which the FBI estimates has increased 5.6% from 2019 to 2020.

“The calls have been pretty dramatic,” Heino said. “A lot with weapons and violence. We used to see downtimes in the winter and now it’s pretty steady. Now until February we see a downturn and then we see it picking back up. Everything you could possibly imagine from thefts to domestic violence. We’re not seeing the downturn that we used to.”

The traumatic calls have included more than a dozen suicides, which have taken a toll on deputies, Heino said, with the department utilizing mental health programs like Braveheart Chaplain Ministry, catered to help staff process PTSD.

“We’ve had to afford a lot more opportunities for people to debrief themselves,” Heino said. “We’ve had multiple suicides and officer-involved shootings. I think that we as an agency can get better at recognizing that and providing assistance earlier.”

Now in the shoulder season, deputies have had a chance to take a breather with far fewer calls than they received during the summer. But even in October and November, Heino says there was still a high volume of theft and assault calls.

After a busy summer, Flathead County Search and Rescue volunteers are in full swing coordinating training like basic search and rescue and swiftwater rescue courses, much of which couldn’t be done in person last year due to the pandemic along with difficulties recruiting volunteers.

“We’re starting to bring those courses back, which is huge not only for the camaraderie amongst the people in the organization but also educating those that are responding is huge for us,” Heino said.

Search and Rescue was heavily utilized this summer as tourists returned to the Flathead and many were spread beyond Glacier National Park’s boundaries as a result of the reservation system, creating more widespread recreation.

An average number of Search and Rescue calls have come in this fall, Heino said.

Teams are still searching for a man who went missing on Nov. 9 in the Cramer Creek area near Blacktail Mountain Ski Area. North Valley Search and Rescue have teamed up with Flathead County Search and Rescue with multiple dog teams, searching through dense timber and cliff bands. Deputies logged 680 hours as of last week.

Now, the sheriff’s office is preparing for the winter months where Heino expects more vehicle collisions, skiing and snowmobiling incidents and the usual drug- and theft-related incidents.

“Resource-wise, we’re struggling,” Heino said.

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