By Patti Carpenter
Following several months of what some perceive as turmoil and others welcome as change, the dust may finally start to settle at the Lovell Police Department. With the appointment by Mayor Angel Montanez of Chief Jason Beal and his scheduled start date only a week away, the employees of the police department will soon have leadership again.
“When Jason showed interest in the position, I knew right away that’s who I wanted for the chief,” said Montanez. “He lives here, he grew up here in Lovell, he knows people, he’s well-rounded and he has a lot of contacts (with different agencies and organizations) in the area. And, he doesn’t have any issues, at least none that I’ve heard of.”
Beal said he is excited to take on his new responsibilities starting on Oct. 1. He said he isn’t planning to make any sweeping changes until he’s had the opportunity to work side by side with the current staff and is able to fully appraise the situation at hand.
Currently the department is staffed with two full-time police officers (Matt Koritnik and Brandon Jolley), one school resource officer (Kris Brimhall), one part-time animal control officer (Christian Mendoza) and one full-time officer in training, Luke Welch, who is midway through a 13-week training program at the police academy in Douglas. He is expected to graduate in November, at which time he will be field-trained working alongside an experienced officer. The department is currently advertising for an additional full-time officer, with a deadline for applications of Friday, Sept. 25. Interviewing applicants and hiring a new officer will be one of Beal’s first priorities.
In the interim, Cowley Police Chief Dan Anderson has assisted the department, along with the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Department.
“Dan has actually been a great asset to holding this department together,” said Montanez. “He hasn’t been out there to be in the spotlight, he’s just been willing to help out and to do whatever needs to be done to get the job done.”
The dispatch department currently has two full-time dispatchers (Jennifer Massey and Angie Morely-Brown), two dispatchers in training (Daniel Anderson Jr. and Jessica Throssell) and is currently advertising to fill a part-time dispatch position, with a deadline for applications in early October.
During several weeks of being short-staffed, dispatchers at the sheriff’s department in Basin have covered shifts. Montanez said he is grateful for the help the department has received from the sheriff’s department.
“The majority of my supporters, who voted for me, felt we needed change in the police department,” explained Montanez. “That change needed to start from the top. I really wasn’t looking past that in terms of other personnel. I think we are at a new beginning right now with those who have decided to stay and those who are new. We have a chance for a fresh start now with all the personnel we have and I think Jason has the opportunity to train them the way he would like to see them trained.”
Montanez said one of his goals is to see an officer from the LPD back in the local school system. He said he would like to see new positions filled by locals and by young people who have moved away to continue their education who would like to return home.
“I would like to see an officer back in our own school system, right here in Lovell,” said Montanez.
Montanez said he has had a lot of complaints from his constituents about excessive traffic stops, especially on Main Street. He said he would like to see that type of patrol spread out more in the community. In particular, he would like to see more side streets patrolled.
“I think it’s a deterrent to anyone coming through here, to see so many patrol cars parked on Main Street,” said Montanez. “You don’t see that much enforcement when you go through Powell and that’s a much bigger town than here. It’s going to be totally up to Jason as to how lenient he wants officers to be about this sort of stuff, but I think it needs to be looked at.”
Beal expressed that he thinks a lot of that decision should be a matter officer discretion. He said he thinks there is a problem with speeding in certain areas and with other infractions that put the public in jeopardy, like not stopping behind school buses. He said he plans to patrol the town himself to determine which areas need more enforcement and which areas may need less. He said he also plans to solicit public feedback on the issue.
“One thing I really want to emphasize in my new position as chief, I’m very much a believer in officer discretion,” explained Beal. “I’m not going to tell officers they need to have to write up a certain number of this or that. If a question comes up, we will discuss the specific situation. Also, once I’m out patrolling myself, I will see certain things that catch my attention that I may decide to emphasize a bit.”
Beal said he hopes to see more public education on some of these issues. He said he is in favor of community meetings, the use of social media and one-on-one conversations to achieve that goal.
Montanez said he would like to see all of the town departments work together more under what he referred to as a “town umbrella,” with better communication between departments.
He said he likes the idea of having an ordinance officer who deals with issues like weed control, junk vehicles and animal control. He said he thinks a lot of the problems with weeds and junk vehicles have to do with lack of sufficient manpower for the task of enforcing those ordinances. Beal agreed and added that having an ordinance officer would free up police officers to perform more investigative duties.
Both agreed that the town needs more enforcement regarding drug related crimes. Montanez said he was particularly bothered by the multiple burglaries that took place at Lovell Drug over the years, especially in one particular instance where a broken window was not noticed by police for hours during a night patrol. He said he has heard many complain of “profiling” based on either race or on previous criminal history. He said by targeting certain people, others who may be “bigger players” are being missed. Both Beal and Montanez agreed that drug problems in the community need to be addressed. Beal said getting the community involved is one way to help with the problem. He said he is a strong advocate of a “community-policing model.”
“A community watch concept, where people who live in the community report on what they see going on in their own neighborhood, works well,” said Beal. “They know their own neighborhood best and they are the first to recognize if something is out of place or doesn’t quite seem right.”
Beal said he also is in favor of working with other organizations to resolve some of the more complex problems like domestic violence and sexual assault. He said he believes there are some very good resources in the community to assist officers with those kinds of cases and he plans to continue to foster relationships with organizations like CARES and child advocacy organizations that assist with forensic interviews. He said it’s important to make sure victims get the services they need.
Montanez said he would like to see a friendlier relationship between officers and the public. He said he doesn’t believe intimidation works as well as good communication. Beal added that as part of the community watch model, people feel more of a connection with the department and feel more comfortable coming to officers for help. A big part of that is getting to know the community, he said.
“They get to know you and you get to know them,” he said. “I think the people we have working in the department right now are really good. I think with a little bit of guidance and a little bit of leadership we can continue moving in a positive direction. I don’t see where there is going to be any kind of lag in improving. I see a lot of positives here and we will build on that.”
Beal said he plans to work hand-in-hand with officers and to work with staff to develop common goals and objectives. He said he plans initially to even ride along with some of the officers to see how things are going and to determine what kind of training might be helpful.
“I don’t think coming in and making changes right off the bat would be helpful,” said Beal. “I really won’t know what changes, if any, are appropriate until I’m in the position to see what’s working and what’s not working. There are a lot of variables involved and I’m an armchair quarterback right now.”
Mayor Montanez said he wants Beal to run the department as he sees fit and doesn’t plan to micromanage his decisions.
“I’ve said all along, I have only three things I’m interested in seeing; those three things are ethics, honesty and accountability,” said Montanez. “How he (Beal) does that is up to him. As chief, Jason has my full support and I want the other officers and staff to know they have my support, too.”