Jessi Wetzel thought it was a pretty big deal when somebody shot up her parked car two days after Christmas.
She was amazed, and angry, when she called the Billings Police Department to report the incident and was told that an officer would not be coming by to investigate.
Later that day, Dec. 27, after Wetzel found two shell casings in the street outside her downtown Billings apartment, she said she called the Police Department two more times, after which a police officer did stop by to pick up the evidence. Even so, Wetzel was upset enough to write a letter to the editor, which appeared in the Billings Gazette on Dec. 31.
The short letter read: “My car was shot five times with a .40-caliber gun in the middle of the day in the Billings downtown area. The Billings Police Department considers it an act of vandalism and was not going to dispatch a car. I personally am concerned about the complacency of our police department concerning the safety of the residents that live in this area.”
Police Chief Rich St. John said its not a matter of complacency, but a question of staffing. Given the high volume of calls the department responds to, he said, it can’t justify sending out an officer to investigate a property crime in cases where there are no suspects, no evidence and no witnesses to the crime.
“Our protocol on those, if we don’t have any of those (three things), is not to send an officer,” St. John said.
St. John confirmed that in the case of Wetzel’s vehicle, an officer was dispatched to pick up the shell casings after Wetzel found them. The officer also took photographs of the bullet holes in the vehicle, he said.
If a police officer does not respond, St. John said, the report is forwarded to the Crime Prevention Center and volunteers there will call the complainant for more information, and a file is created on the incident in any case anything else turns up.
“This all goes to prioritization,” St. John said. “We want to keep our officers available for emergency calls.”
For better or worse, he said, if someone shoots out a car window, it’s considered an act of vandalism.
“It’s gunfire, but it’s no different from throwing a rock or knocking over a mail box,” he said.
If a rash of such incidents were reported in one area or a great number of incidents around the city, as happened a few years ago, he said, that would also spark extra efforts on the part of the department.
But in this case the incident appeared to be isolated, and if any similar incidents happened in the same area about the same time, the department didn’t hear about it, St. John said.
Kallie Parsons, the volunteer director at the Crime Prevention Center, 2910 Third Ave. N., said Wetzel was called by a volunteer after she filed her report on the shooting incident. If someone calls in while a crime is in progress, an officer would be sent immediately, she said.
If the complaint is lodged after the fact, she said, echoing St. John, and there is nothing to investigate, a volunteer will do the follow-up. And like St. John, Parsons said people shooting out car windows, with either a BB gun or more powerful weapon, is not exactly uncommon.
“Honestly, it’s not a new thing,” she said.
According to the BPD’s latest online annual report, for 2016, there were 84,820 calls for service that year. That was actually down a bit from 2015, where there 87,263 calls, but the same report also showed an increase in serious crimes.
In 2016, 513 violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — were reported, up from 469 in the previous year. In 2016 there were 6,093 property crimes — burglary, vehicle theft, larceny and arson — up from 5,501 in 2015.
The number of incidents involving car windows being shot out is not listed separately in the crime statistics. They are classified as acts of criminal mischief, which would also include vandalism. In 2016, there were 1,891 incidents of criminal mischief reported, up from 1,741 the previous year.