At this time of year in downtown Billings, Matt Lennick’s phone should be ringing a lot more than it has been.
Lennick, a downtown resource officer who works for the Police Department but whose pay is covered by a special tax on downtown property owners, said he’s still waiting to see statistical comparisons between this year and last, but this year sure feels different.
“This is it,” he said, referring to the time of year when transients usually start appearing in greater numbers. “We’re into it. We should be seeing big numbers by now.”
Last year his phone was ringing off the hook with reports of trespassing, people drinking and urinating in public—all the usual stuff. This year, he said, the calls have been few and far between.
“We’re still going to have days where you see people everywhere,” he said, “but right now it feels like we have a handle on it.”
Lisa Harmon, director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, said Lennick and Tony Nichols, the other downtown resource officer, deserve a lot of the credit for the quieter downtown scene. By working exclusively downtown and spending most of their time on bicycles, they are as familiar with business owners and residents as they are with transients and homeless people.
She also credited Joel Simpson, a licensed addiction counselor with Rimrock treatment center who goes out with Lennick and Nichols for a couple of hours a day, thanks to a grant from the DBA.
Just since Simpson started in early April, Harmon said, 10 transients who have had frequent run-ins with the police over the years are in 28-day treatment programs at Rimrock, with two set to graduate this week.
Another 20 transients are in a peer-to-peer recovery program—known as TRAC, Treatment, Recovery and Culture—offered through the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leadership Council.
And prospects are good for continued improvement as spring turns into summer.
Police Chief Rich St. John said more of the Police Department’s overtime fund is going to be spent this summer on putting cops on bicycles to work the downtown during hours when Nichols and Lennick are normally off.
“I want them where all the action’s taking place,” St. John said.
Lennick said that for the past several years, officers working bike patrol were assigned to work late at night, to assist other officers around closing time at downtown bars. This year, he said, the extra cops will be patrolling from 5 p.m. to 9 or 10 p.m.
He and Nichols generally work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., or 7 to 5, with Lennick on Monday through Thursday and Nichols on Wednesday through Saturday. The regular transients have figured out when Nichols and Lennick are around and when they’re not, Lennick said, so the extra coverage will help a lot.
St. John said he might also put the high school resource officers to work downtown this summer. He has four vacancies on the regular beats right now, he said, and those positions have to be filled first, but if those shifts get covered he’ll rotate the school officers through the downtown patrol.
St. John said the concentrated coverage, and the addition of Simpson to the downtown patrol, have been making a difference.
“We’ve got all the players engaged, and the transients themselves know something’s up,” he said.
Harmon said another change has been the intense involvement of many different people on committees that grew out of the Community Innovations Summit last fall, convened to find solutions to what seemed like a quickly growing problem with transients and public drunkenness. Since then, Harmon said, more than 100 people have been meeting every month on committees looking at different ways of addressing the problems.
“That’s what’s changed in the downtown,” Harmon said. “Everybody’s eyes are on the ball.”
Next month, people working on those solutions will present progress reports on what has been accomplished since the Community Innovations Summit, Harmon said.
The Tribal Leadership Council will be having a Treatment, Recovery and Culture conference June 15-17 at the First Interstate Bank operations center, and the downtown progress report will be delivered on the morning of June 16.
Peggy Gargaro, who lives downtown and owns Rock Creek Coffee Roasters at North Broadway and Second Avenue North with her husband Joel, said she has noticed a change downtown this spring.
“It’s nothing like it has been in the past,” she said, and residents and business owners appreciate the presence of the bike cops.
But the real test will come after school’s out, she said. She is eager to see whether families with children will feel safe in coming downtown to check out places like the new and quite popular Big Dipper ice cream shop.
“That’s what we want,” she said. “We want people to come down here and see what the downtown has to offer.”