A shooting in the Billings North Park neighborhood on Monday that left a suspect dead and a police officer injured has reignited debate over how many parolees and probationers the state is releasing in Billings.
Reform advocates where the Montana Department of Corrections releases this population are speaking out again and hoping city, county and state officials are listening.
“It’s the root of violent crime here,” said Frank Ewalt, a former city council member. “We have to take a stand and say we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
Ewalt, who lost his council election to Jennifer Owens last fall, lobbied the city council for much of the spring to send a message to the state by passing an ordinance that would limit the number of discharged conditions that the state can send to Billings.
The state may not meet the cap, he said, but it would send a signal to Helena that the city is serious about pushing back.
People also read…
The issue of the number of state parolees and probationers sent to Billings has been debated in recent years, as crime rates in the city have steadily increased.
In November, city and county leaders met with state lawmakers in Billings, a meeting sparked by a chaotic stabbing in Jake’s restaurant kitchen earlier in the fall. The suspect was from Missoula on preview at Alpha House, a halfway house in Billings.
The perception that state parolees are delivered to Billings in disproportionate numbers has long been shared by residents and officials. Some of them are confirmed by the data.
Yellowstone County has about 15% of the state’s population, but as of the end of last year, 24% of the state’s community-supervised residents. Community supervision includes parolees, probationers and people on conditional release.
By comparison, Missoula County has 11% of the state’s population and 11.5% of the state’s community-supervised population. Gallatin County, roughly the same size as Missoula, has about 5% of the state’s total community-supervised population.
In addition to the hard data, Billings officials talk about stories they’ve heard about other communities sending members of their own vulnerable populations to Billings. They fear that the largest city in the state will be viewed statewide as some kind of collector city.
For Ewalt, this is the heart of the problem. For him, the solution to Billings’ crime problem is to get other communities to take their fair share of the state’s community-supervised population.
“There are seven major cities in the state,” he said.
Mayor Bill Cole, who along with County Attorney Scott Twito has met with state lawmakers in the past to discuss the issue, is keen to see action taken.
“We need to explore all options to reduce crime, including reducing the number of probationers and parolees who are released here,” he said by email.
Whether the city caps the number of state-supervised residents released in Billings is not sure is the answer. Traditionally, municipalities do not have the power to tell the state what it can do.
But he believes there are steps to be taken.
“The first step should be to collect and analyze the data because anecdotal reports are conflicting,” he said.
Responsibility for collecting this data likely rests with the Yellowstone County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a consortium of criminal justice professionals that includes federal, state, county and city officials, a he declared.
Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski sits on the Coordinating Council, which he said meets regularly and will meet again next week.
“If the data shows Billings is getting more than its fair share, we should work with our local lawmakers to find a solution,” Cole said.
Within a week, Billings police shot and killed two men after two car chases and confrontations – the suspect in North Park on Monday and a man near Mountview Cemetery the previous Monday. Department policy states that officers involved in shootings should be placed on administrative leave until those shootings are cleared.
As a result, 19 officers are currently on leave, raising concerns about the reduced number of officers remaining to patrol the city.
“The community can be reassured we have the required number of officers who are on the street,” Billings Police Department Administrative Lt. Matt Lennick said in a statement. “We’ve made these adjustments, and it’s short-term, it’s for several weeks, and then those officers will be back on the streets.”