Law Enforcement

Inflation, Fentanyl Top Concerns During Tester Visit with Law Enforcement Leaders  

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester met with law enforcement officials on Friday to discuss immigration, budget concerns and the area's burgeoning fentanyl crisis

By Denali Sagner
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester meets with local sheriffs and police chiefs to discuss crime prevention, fentanyl trafficking, and border security at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department on March 15, 2024. Photo by Denali Sagner

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester joined law enforcement officials in Kalispell on Friday to discuss the economic strains on local police departments, rising concerns over fentanyl and federal immigration policy.

Leaders of local sheriff’s and police departments lamented high inflation, stagnant budgets and arduous federal grants processes that they say have made it difficult to repair outdated infrastructure and pay officers. Officials also reported higher instances of fentanyl use in the community and concerns over border security.

Gathered with the senator for a roundtable discussion at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office were Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short, Kalispell Police Chief Jordan Venizio, Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters and Whitefish Police Deputy Chief Kevin Conway.

According to Heino, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department has seen a “pretty significant increase” in fentanyl use and overdose deaths, which the sheriff said “taxes a lot of resources for investigation.”

According to a 2021 report published by the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Montana increased by 167% from 2016 to 2020.

Heino applauded the work of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, a multi-agency cooperative that targets drug crimes across Flathead, Glacier, Lake and Lincoln counties. The Flathead and Lincoln County sheriff’s departments are currently working on a hands-on intervention that will teach parents how to identify possible signs of adolescent drug use.

However, the law enforcement officials said, more assistance is needed to address the growing threat.

Tester, who spent most of the 45-minute roundtable listening to local officials, expressed disappointment at the failure of a major bipartisan bill last month that would have implemented strict border security measures while bolstering funding for Ukraine. Despite the bill undergoing months of negotiations and garnering support from both sides of the political aisle, House Republicans declared it “dead on arrival.”

The senator also discussed the FEND Off Fentanyl Act, which would impose economic sanctions on China and other criminal organizations that manufacture the precursor chemicals that become fentanyl. Though the bill has received the support of 68 Republican and Democratic members of the Senate, Tester included, the senator said it is currently being held up in the House.

Short, the Lincoln County Sheriff, said that due to budget constraints, his office couldn’t replace its police cars this year, let alone invest in major investigation tools.

“Just the simple inflationary costs of all the equipment and everything that we’re trying to buy now, it’s pretty significant,” Conway, the deputy police chief in Whitefish, said.

Officials expressed frustration with federal grants processes, which they described as cumbersome. Others said that grant programs that once provided significant funding were becoming less helpful with inflation.

Peters, the Columbia Falls Police Chief, described one federal grant program for local police departments as so burdensome that the department abandoned the application process altogether.

Peters also expressed frustration at the Montana Legislature, which he said “came after cities and towns, essentially saying that we’re taxing people to death.”

Municipal and county governments sparred with the Legislature this fall after Montanans experienced an unprecedented spike in their property tax bills, one that state lawmakers said was the fault of out-of-control spending by municipalities, and that local leaders said was a failure by the state to control tax hikes through legislation.

Sheriff Brian Heino speaks at a press conference on June 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Tester, discussing the taxation conflict with state lawmakers, said, “They’re wrong, by the way.”

Law enforcement officials also reported increased interactions with migrants who have entered the country illegally.

At the same time that migrant crossings between Mexico and the United States have surged to record numbers, crossings at the country’s colder, sparser northern border with Canada have also increased. According to reporting by the New York Times, more than 12,200 people were apprehended illegally crossing the border from Canada in 2023, a 241% increase from the year prior.

It is unclear if undocumented immigrants crossing the northern border have landed in the Flathead Valley.

A recent rumor that a busload of immigrants was dropped off in Kalispell was debunked by MTN News, who confirmed with Heino that the bus was actually carrying Army National Guard members.

On immigration, Tester said, “There’s a big, big, big difference between legal immigration and illegal immigration. And if the people coming across the line in this day and age, if we don’t know who they are, they gotta be gone.”

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