Polson Police Department battles drugs with a focus on helping kids
POLSON – Reducing the amount of illegal drugs in town has become a top priority of the Polson Police Department with the help of search warrants and the skills of a canine team.
Polson Police Sergeant George Simpson said the efforts began as a reaction to limited space for offenders in the Lake County Jail and a county attorney burdened with a lot of cases.
“Because there isn’t room for them to stay in jail, we decided to drive them out of the city,” Simpson said of drug dealers. He said investigations, intelligence work, and tips from the community have been the best ways to find out where drugs are located and then to serve search warrants to shut down those operations. Simpson said disturbing their business sends the message that it isn’t easy to set up shop in Polson.
He said drug users – not just dealers – share some of the blame for the problem, but his approach is a little different with users. He said incarceration isn’t always the answer for people with addiction problems. “We encourage them to get treatment, and we often give out a list of resources and contact information. If you’re a drug user, we want you to get help before jail becomes an issue. Straight up drug dealers, we want them to get out of town.”
The department decided to focus their efforts further on reducing illegal drugs in homes with children. “We thought about what we could do about the situation and our thoughts turned to the children being affected by this problem,” he said.
Children are a prime focus for the police department because minors are put into situations they can’t control. Simpson has seen many situations where kids were in homes with drugs on the table, rotten food was left lying around, and babies, he said, who looked like they hadn’t had their diapers changed in days.
“These children need help,” he said. “They can’t do anything about their situation.”
The process of raiding a house is not as dramatic as television shows make it seem, he said. Officers often wait until kids are at school or daycare before a search warrant is served. “When we conduct an evaluation on the home, we make it a priority to find out when the kids are not home,” he said. “We want to know as much as we can and not just hit the house while kids are present. We really don’t want the kids to be home.”
Avoiding children isn’t always possible. He said when the team goes in wearing tactical gear sometimes they encounter a child. The incident usually only last seconds before the scene is secure, and then, officers remove their gear so the child can see that they are regular people. Depending on the child’s age, the officers try and explain to the child why they are in the home.
“We tell them that we are there to help,” Simpson said.
The officers bring along a bag for each kid containing items like toys, books, a toothbrush and pajamas. Community members often donate these items. “It helps the kids calm down and focus on something else,” he said.
Simpson said the department works with Child Protective Services from the State of Montana and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to place the children in a better environment.
“Parents sometimes just need a wake up call to get back on the right track, and then they can start doing what they need to do to get their kids back,” he said.
The department has gotten some backlash from Facebook commenters who say the officers shouldn’t be taking the kids from their homes.
“It’s a misconception that we are ripping children away from their families and giving them to the state,” Simpson said. “In many circumstances, the kids stay with another family member who is able to care for them.”
To help find drugs in homes and on the street, the police department utilizes the help of a canine police team. “Drug dogs are beautiful instruments in the whole operation,” he said.
Captain Alan Booth has worked with a canine police dog named Brody for the past two and a half years. Brody worked for the department for another two and a half years with another handler before working with Booth.
Brody is trained to detect drugs and has gone on many search missions in the past five years. Booth said the canine team recently went into a house after officers searched it and Brody was able to find a bag with methamphetamine residue in it that officers had missed.
Booth said a dog’s nose has an extreme sensitivity to smells. For example, humans can go into a pizza shop and their senses combine all the smells into one pizza smell. A dog goes into the same pizza shop and smells everything individually.
Brody is eight years old this year, which isn’t old in dog years, but the yellow lab is starting to show early signs of arthritis. He will retire to the life of a regular dog this fall and will likely remain with his current handler.
The department plans to bring on a new canine member of the department. Officer Cody Doyle was chosen as the new canine handler due to his background with animal behavior.
“Doyle is an outstanding officer with a degree in biology, and he has worked with dogs,” Simpson said.
The department plans to send Doyle to the Shallow Creek Kennel in Pennsylvania to work with a dog in August. They plan to get a German wirehaired pointer due to their friendly nature.
The price for a police dog includes three months of training and lodging for the officer and the dog and averages about $16,000. Simpson said when he has talked to members of the public about the price they say they think it’s worth it if it helps reduce the drug problem in town.
When citizens learned about the department’s need for a new police dog, many started fundraising to help out with the cost and have donated a total of about $10,000 to the project.
“We have a great community that really supports the police department,” Simpson said. “We wouldn’t be able to make this happen as quickly without the public’s support. We are really grateful.”
Polson officers are involved in another kid-focused program with a bit of fun involved. “We are doing a Selfie with a Cop project,” Simpson said. If kids get seven selfies with different officers – an officer and a police dog counts as two points – then they get different prizes. “We still have patches if kids want to participate,” he said. A girl by the name of Zayleigh was the first child to win the contest. She got a picture with Chief Wade Nash for the winning photo.
“It’s just another thing we are doing for kids” Simpson said. “We are trying hard to do as much as we can for the youth, and we hope that if they ever need help, they feel like they can come to us.”