Billings will soon have a police officer specifically assigned to patrolling city parks.
The new position was approved by the City Council in July, with funding from the city’s General Fund, and the person selected for the job will be helping respond to what is perceived as a growing number of problems in the parks.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Michael Whitaker, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Billings, pointing to increasing numbers of incidents involving public drunkenness, urinating in the parks, people camped out in the park and similar incidents.
The idea for the new position wasn’t suggested by either the parks or police department, Whitaker said, but by City Council members themselves. He said the idea grew out of his budget presentation before the council last spring, when several council members began discussing ways to clean up city parks.
His own employees often encounter people camped out in the parks (which are closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) or bathing in the rest rooms first thing in the morning. Parks employees are instructed not to try doing anything about the problems on their own.
“When there’s an issue, just everyone else, we call the Police Department,” Whitaker said.
Lt. Neil Lawrence, with the Police Department, said the department was in the process of filling three vacant positions when the council approved the new hire. The PBD had four qualified candidates for the three jobs, he said, and after three of them were hired, the fourth was told he’d be first on the list for the next opening.
A week or two later, Lawrence said, “I was able to call that fourth and say, ‘Congratulations, we’re able to hire you now.”
That doesn’t mean the new hire will be the park patrol officer. That job, like all “specialized” positions — which include school resource officers, downtown officers, detectives, bicycle patrol officers and more — must have at least three years’ experience with the department.
In the meantime, because of complaints about problems in the parks, the department has been rotating in officers who want to work extra shifts on their days off, either on the bicycle patrols, which often include rides through city parks, or a special park patrol, which involves cruising through the parks in a four-wheeler.
Whitaker said the four main parks where problems were reported were South Park, North Park, the Downtown Skate Park and Swords Park, which is mostly on top of the Rims but also includes some city property extending from the Rims down to the valley floor.
In Swords Park, many of the problems involved people camped out illegally.
“Even in the winter, there are people living up under the Rims,” Lawrence said.
Zach O’Dell, the BPD’s crime analyst, provided Last Best News with a list of incident reports for the four parks from the beginning of April through Thursday morning. It showed a total of 254 such incidents at South Park, 172 at North, 61 at Swords and 21 at the skate park.
The three biggest categories were reports of suspicious activity, whether reported by citizens or officers themselves. Those totaled 144, followed by 97 “area checks,” which apparently can be either in response to calls or complaints or when officers believe such a check is needed.
There were also 73 disturbance calls and 28 “drunk” calls — 25 at South Park, two at North and one at the skate park. Nine assaults were reported, six at South and three at North, as well as 25 “welfare checks,” when officers, for instance, are asked to check on a person who looks injured and might only be sleeping.
The good news, Lawrence said, is that very few serious crimes are reported in the parks. Almost all of the calls involved “quality of life” concerns that deter other people from using the parks.
He also said that officers patrolling the parks can write tickets for dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets or whose dogs are not on leashes or not licensed with the city.
And though the park officer will concentrate on the parks with the most frequent calls, Lawrence said, they will be on call to deal with problems in parks citywide.