Law enforcement in Missoula is looking for a way to more effectively deal with illegal activity in transient camps, but their first attempt to improve collaboration has fallen apart due to reluctance from the Missoula Police Department to cooperate.
“The whole thing started with the Missoula Fire Department responding to a campfire,” says Ben Gladwin, assistant director of the University of Montana Police Department.
It was mid-July, Gladwin says, and firefighters had responded to a report of a fire burning in an illegal transient camp on Mount Sentinel, during the height of fire season. After extinguishing the blaze, the firefighters asked Gladwin to send officers to the scene to deal with the camp, which seemed to be on university property, though it was difficult to know for sure. Like much of the public land on Missoula’s fringe, Mount Sentinel is a patchwork of various jurisdictions, with the university, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Missoula Police Department and Missoula County Sheriff’s Department all responsible for law enforcement on distinct but adjoining pieces of land.
Despite uncertainty about whether the camp was in his jurisdiction, Gladwin and a small contingent of university police officers responded and ordered the illegal campers to move along. They complied without incident. Later, however, Gladwin realized some members of the group he’d pushed out had moved down the river, to a camp near Reserve Street, where they were allegedly involved in the July murder of Gilbert “Jack” Berry. The revelation elicited concern about what could have happened as a result of firefighters encountering violent criminals without law enforcement assistance and about the lack of communication between agencies that shift transients back and forth between jurisdictions.
“So we realized it was a bigger issue than just whose jurisdiction it was,” Gladwin says. “It was a much larger problem.”
The larger problem was the lack of a coordinated law enforcement and community response to illegal activity in transient camps, especially near the Clark Fork. As it stands now, officers are able to cross jurisdictional lines—but only when they receive a formal request for mutual aid from whichever agency is in charge. In search of a more comprehensive approach, representatives from a long list of local, state, federal and private agencies came together on Aug. 12. During the meeting, attendees decided their best course of action was to draft a Memorandum of Understanding, a formal agreement that would allow agencies to work together across jurisdictional lines to preemptively and systematically prevent and police illegal activity, such as camping, on public land.
“The main problem is, who has the ability to enforce?” Gladwin says. “That’s something that’s been confusing because there’s such a patchwork of land … that we’d have to go through this big process of, okay, we’ve identified this camp, now we have to identify which law enforcement agency is responsible for enforcing the no-camping and then which landowner is responsible for cleaning up the mess that’s left as a result of the illegal camping. So the idea of the MOU is to bring everybody together, say, ‘We’re all going to work together. We can all address this. And we’re not going to worry about the border so much. We’re just going to address the problem.’”
Though Gladwin and others left the meeting optimistic an MOU would be drafted and signed, a key figure was left out of the discussion: Missoula Police Chief Mike Brady. According to City of Missoula Communications Director Ginny Merriam, Brady was caught off guard by the plan. After he did find out about it, Brady objected to the MOU. In a statement, Brady says he doesn’t “believe an MOU is needed to have all the agencies in the area work together on a response to the issues which currently exist.” Though he says he’s committed to cooperation, Brady argues existing mechanisms of support, such as requests for mutual aid, are sufficient for dealing with the kinds of problems that have arisen.
Without the police department’s participation, plans for the MOU have been dropped. But according to Missoula County Sheriff’s Captain Brad Giffin, one of the chief architects of the abandoned memorandum, law enforcement agencies will keep searching for a solution.
Giffin says it’s not the MOU per se that matters but the development of a more holistic approach to a complex issue. Such an approach, he says, wouldn’t be a way of merely “targeting people for enforcement.” Instead, it would aim to “discourage the criminal element” within the city’s homeless population while helping those looking for assistance receive “equal access to the services that every other segment of society has access to.” Michael Moore, head of Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, says he agrees that coming together to increase the “official presence” in homeless camps can only help clear out negative populations and get aid to those who want it. Both he and Giffin say this can’t be achieved until cooperation and communication increase.
“If each individual agency is making contact with a camp or a group of people and not sharing that information with the rest of us, then how can the rest of us know the things that we need to know in order to be effective?” Giffin asks.
Giffin expects to assemble a new group to start working toward an alternative to an MOU by the end of September or in early October.
“I’m usually pretty optimistic,” Giffin says. “We’ll see what happens.”