In October of 2001, Air Force reservist John Weber got the call. Weber was needed, not in Afghanistan, Kuwait or Washington, D.C., but at Hill Air Force base outside Salt Lake City to replace troops on their way overseas. Weber had mixed feelings about the assignment. He didn’t think that his activation was frivolous, but as a sergeant in the Missoula Police Department, he wondered whether his skills might not be put to better use at home in Montana.
“You feel conflicted because you know back home you’re needed,” says Weber. “Then basically you’re [used as] backfill for the military.”
Weber’s activation orders were for a year, but he was told not to get too comfortable. The rumor was that his unit was only activated because of the heightened security surrounding the Winter Olympics and that they’d all be going home in a couple months. But the Olympics came and went and Weber went about his duty in the security force—the Air Force’s version of the military police—eventually spending the full year on the base.
While there was some law enforcement work to do, the bulk of Weber’s time was spent guarding equipment on the base. With 36 members of Weber’s 40-person unit on loan from civilian law enforcement, many in the unit also felt conflicted about their activation.
“We had guys from all over who felt like they were doing pretty important jobs back home,” says Weber. “There was a guy from New York City and he was really frustrated because a lot of his partners had died [in the attacks on the WTC towers] and he said, ‘If something else happens back in New York City while I’m here on an Air Force base I’m going to be upset.’”
Weber says that most in his unit shared concerns that peers back home were having to work harder and were stretched thinner because they were short staffed. In Missoula and throughout Montana, every aspect of law enforcement is dealing with the activation of reserve officers and deputies. The Missoula police department employs reservist officers who have returned to work like Weber, officers who are currently on active duty, and still more who are on notice and could leave at anytime. The department is presently short two officers to military duty, and has lost a third reservist to a full-time job with the Pentagon. As a general rule, employers are required to hold reservists’ jobs for them for up to five years.
“The city council has given me 85 officers and that includes up to the chief and down to the bottom,” says Patrol Captain Marty Luddemann. “And that’s the bare-bones minimum of what we need to do the job. If you take eight people out of the mix due to injuries and deployment it’s difficult.”
Luddemann says that the basic functions of the police department are being maintained, but the extras—the pro-active programs—are mostly on hold. This means that the department isn’t going into schools or doing community outreach with any frequency. Motorcycle patrols, special traffic enforcement officers and cops on bikes cruising the downtown area have all but dried up.
“The transient population starts to grow this time of year and we like to put a couple bicycle patrols out to try and deal with that issue for the downtown community,” says Luddemann. “Today is the first day I’ve had two bicycle officers out. Usually, I’m forty days into a bicycle program by now.”
Across the street, Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin is dealing with the same problems. Of his 47 deputies, two are on active duty, two more are on notice and two more still are reservists who could be activated. Two deputies may not seem like a big loss, but McMeekin says that even with a full staff it’s difficult to get the job done.
“We still haven’t been able to get back to our pre-1986 level when we had a big layoff of deputies,” he says. “So we have never been able to get involved in some of those extra things the police department is doing.”
Both departments insist that they can still get the job done. While “fringe activities” have fallen by the wayside and both departments are cutting into overtime budgets, they say Missoula isn’t less safe.
It’s more difficult for the Montana Highway Patrol to make that claim. While no Missoula-based members of the patrol have been activated yet, the state at large has lost seven officers—three from Bozeman’s 12-person office.
“As a result, when there are crashes, the response time to the crashes is longer,” says Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Randy Yeager.
A slower response time translates to a greater delay before injuries can be treated and, like the police and the sheriff’s office, Yeager says the Highway Patrol was already running with bare-bones staffing before the deployments.
“We’ve had the same manpower since 1972,” he says. “With the increased number of laws that we’re responsible for enforcing…the complexity has increased, the calls for service have increased, so it’s an uphill battle. And then losing [seven] officers out of a force of 203 is painful.”
Yeager, Luddemann and McMeekin are all struggling to juggle schedules and free staff from all but essential duties. However, none are complaining about the reason for losing their officers. All share a pride that reservists under their command are fulfilling their duty. None see an irony in giving up local officers to protect and serve thousands of miles away. They don’t see a loss of security locally, but a gain in security globally.
“I don’t see the trade-off as anything unusual,” says McMeekin. “In a lot of ways you can think of it as a logical extension of service.”