The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has seen an upswing in all kinds of crime this year, along with an upswing in the number of homeless people, Sheriff Brian Heino said
during the Evergreen Chamber of Commerce’s virtual “High Noon” luncheon Thursday.
Heino gave a presentation to update the community about trends the Sheriff’s Office is seeing with homelessness, drug use, mask wearing and other focus areas for local law enforcement.
The transient homeless population around Flathead County seems to be increasing, according to Heino. He said the number of people seen sleeping in vehicles not meant for full-time habitation, such as recreational vehicles, was on the rise this summer. Sleeping in vehicles is illegal and punishable by a fine on streets within the city of Kalispell.
Heino credited the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic impacts with contributing to the rise in the local transient homeless population over the past few months. Based on his experience, Heino said a general lack of affordable housing in the valley is also a factor.
“I think housing’s the other problem,” he said, observing that the Sheriff’s Office often has to help new deputies find affordable housing whenever they are brought in from other agencies.
However, Heino said community efforts to find placement for unhoused individuals appear to be increasing along with the upswing in the transient homeless population.
CRIMINAL ACTIVITy also is on the rise lately in Flathead County. In fact, Heino said, “in 2020, every single crime has spiked.”
However, the number of criminals in the valley may not be rising commensurate with the occurrence of crimes. Heino maintained the law enforcement adage that 6% of the population—mostly repeat offenders—accounts for about 60% of all crimes.
“Drugs are tied to everything we deal with,” Heino said. He reported methamphetamine prices have recently increased due to production shortages and stricter control along the United States-Mexico border, which has, in turn, led to higher usage of heroin and cocaine in the local area.
Heino said the task of staying on top of drug users is like attempting to fill a barrel riddled with holes: when one person is incarcerated, another appears to take his place.
Heino is also wary of the potential effects of legalizing recreational marijuana in Montana, an issue on the ballot for the upcoming election Nov. 3. Heino said sheriff’s offices in Colorado and Oregon have seen increases in DUIs, drug use under age 12, and black-market dealings and subsequent violent altercations since the drug has been legalized in those states.
Legalizing marijuana “is a little scary to me,” Heino said.
The rising price of meth has also led to a spike in shoplifting, Heino said, because meth-addicted individuals have found themselves short on money to pay for the increasingly expensive drug. Heino urged business owners to report thefts, prosecute shoplifters and add high-quality cameras on their property to help law enforcement crack down on shoplifting.
ALTERCATIONS INVOLVING firearms is another area the Sheriff’s Office has noticed a disturbing upward trend over the past few months. While Heino acknowledged issues with guns and drugs are often tied together, he also said tension from the COVID-19 pandemic and more time spent at home likely have contributed to the rise in violent altercations.
Over the summer, call volumes of all kinds increased. There has also been a recent increase in incidents with weapons, particularly firearms. Lately, Heino said there has been an average of one incident with a firearm per month in Flathead County, including three officer-involved shootings so far this month, all involving subjects with firearms. That’s down from one to two incidents with firearms per week this past summer, Heino said.
Reports of assault and domestic violence are also going up. However, Heino explained these accounts — particularly sexual assault against children — sharply declined while schools were closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, because that source of reporting was unavailable. With schools reopened, reports are on the rise once more. “We’re seeing that aftermath,” Heino observed.
The final crime Heino highlighted was traffic violations, which increased substantially this summer, according to Sheriff’s Office data. Heino said there have already been 1,000 more calls about traffic incidents this year than there were at this time last year. He suspected the closure of the east side of Glacier National Park might have driven up the amount of traffic in Flathead County and the subsequent number of traffic incidents.
“Traffic this year was nuts,” Heino added.
HE ALSO touched on the “tension” the Sheriff’s Office has experienced as deputies have attempted to navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily responsibilities. Heino expressed frustration over the heavy focus on enforcing mask use, rather than educating the community about ways to limit the spread of the virus. However, he said all deputies are currently required to wear face coverings while interacting with the public.
Heino also went over the breakdown of the personnel in his department, reporting the office currently has 63 deputies who started working longer shifts this year than in previous years.
Despite some discouraging trends, Heino said he and his staff remain committed to tackling these challenges in the community going forward, and he maintained the department is well-positioned to do so.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at (406)-758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.