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Force of one

Stevensville's strapped police force taxes county

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Police Chief James Marble sits in his cluttered office in Stevensville's Town Hall surrounded by vacant desks, empty plastic soda cups and a picture of his wife and three kids. The 36-year-old is clearly frustrated talking about watching his police force, once comprised of four officers and a records clerk, dwindle to one on-duty officer—himself.

"I make myself available as much as possible," Marble says. "But I can only do so much."

Since the department's only other full-time patrolman went on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons two and a half months ago, Marble has been charged with conducting every aspect of policing in this town of just more than 2,000 people. He answers the phones, serves as the sole traffic officer and, as the town's only detective, is charged with solving an array of crimes, including burglary, forgery and assault. In other words, if anything goes wrong Marble is the guy—the only guy—to call.

"I don't agree with this scenario," Marble says. "If we had a full staff, ideally, for the population we serve, at the very bare minimum, I think we should have four full-time officers."

But he doesn't. And due to budget constraints, Marble won't have the means to grow the force significantly any time soon. The situation leaves Marble in an impossible predicament, especially when he's supposedly off-duty. In the evening, when his wife goes to work, Marble keeps his cell phone on him, but is primarily responsible for caring for his three young children.

"It's difficult, because I can't abandon my children to go out to a call," he explains.

Stevensville Police Chief James Marble is frustrated serving as the town’s only full-time law enforcement officer. “I didn’t sign up to say, ‘Oh well, I can’t help you,’” Marble says. “That’s not in my nature. I want to be out there dealing with everything. Conversely, my children didn’t sign up either to not ever see their father.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Stevensville Police Chief James Marble is frustrated serving as the town’s only full-time law enforcement officer. “I didn’t sign up to say, ‘Oh well, I can’t help you,’” Marble says. “That’s not in my nature. I want to be out there dealing with everything. Conversely, my children didn’t sign up either to not ever see their father.”

As Marble strives to juggle personal and professional responsibilities, he acknowledges calls for assistance fall through the cracks.

In mid-October, teenagers converged on Stevensville's St. Mary's Historic Mission for a party. The group gathered inside teepees representing a 19th century Salish encampment. Mission Director Colleen Meyer didn't feel comfortable confronting the inebriated group, and neither did her staff of primarily elderly female volunteers. She called the Stevensville Police Department for help.

"Nobody showed up," Meyer says. "It's very, very frustrating...It's just very unfortunate that we don't have more police protection."

Situations like the one at St. Mary's Mission are on the rise. In fact, Stevensville's crime rate jumped by 76 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to the Montana Board of Crime Control.

"The way to combat that is by having a presence," Marble says.

Before taking over as Stevensville's mayor in January, Lewis Barnett served as the town's police chief for 21 years. That gives him a firsthand perspective on the town's law enforcement challenges. Barnett says the department's staffing problems trace back to 2004, when the Town Council trimmed the law enforcement staff from four officers to three. Financial challenges became even more severe last summer, Barnett says, prompting the council to trim even further.

"We started cutting budgets," he says. "We cut and we cut and we cut, to the bare minimum. We had to lay off the police clerk. We didn't replace the kid who went to another department. Then, our veteran, we had to put him on administrative leave. So we're back down to one."

The mayor is uncertain when Stevensville's second officer will be able to resume departmental responsibilities. The town has funding to hire a part-time officer, he says, but any new hire must go through 14 weeks of training in order to be allowed to serve without supervision.

"So, it's still going to be 14 weeks with one cop," Barnett says. "Unfort-unately, in the last few months we haven't found anybody who qualifies. And the insurance company says you can't put anybody out there who's not trained."

When local law enforcement isn't available, the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department is charged with policing the community. Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman estimates his deputies have answered roughly 70 percent of all calls coming out of Stevensville in recent weeks. The added burden taxes a county law enforcement agency that's already tasked with policing 2,400 square miles. The situation doesn't sit well with Hoffman.

"The bottom line is the city of Stevensville has balanced their budget on the backs of the Sheriff's Office," he says. "I have concerns about public safety in the city of Stevensville."

Barring something unforeseen, Marble and the community he serves will be left, for the immediate future at least, making due. Despite the strains on his personal and professional life, the chief says he's committed to toughing it out.

"My plan is to stay here and deal with the issues," he says. "I just don't know where the silver lining is in the cloud, I really don't."

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