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Bell shares strategies, concerns as new Lake County Sheriff

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It had been a whirlwind between when Lake County Sheriff Don Bell and Undersheriff Jim Atkins took office at one minute after midnight on Jan. 1 and when they came to speak to the Pachyderm Club on Jan. 9. 

During the last nine days, Bell and Atkins have put in more than 110 hours each, going to work at 6 a.m. and working as late as 9 p.m.

Some of that hard work was the beginning of a new job and some came from feedback Bell received from Lake County residents during campaign, when he handed out 4,500 cards. 

He heard, “’I called, and nobody came.’ It really hurt my heart.” 

So Bell and Atkins have been working with all departments, streamlining dispatch procedures to increase officer responsiveness. A system of dividing the county into sections, such as south and north, was in use with deputies, with calls “stacking” up in each area. Now, if deputies in the other areas have time, they take the calls.

Bell said he wants “no line drawn on the roads.”  

Bell and Atkins answered questions from the public, and Larry Ashcraft asked for details on reorganization. 

Bell gave another example of changes — a patrol lieutenant with “a world of information and knowledge.” The lieutenant will be on shift with both detectives and patrol to help train younger officers and will be another officer on the road.

To a question about the ratio of officers to Lake County residents, Bell called on ex-Lake County Sheriff and current Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron. The ratio of officers to residents is one for every 2,000. The average in some other counties is approximately one in every 1,200 to 1,300 people. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office has approximately 72 employees, including dispatch, detention, sworn and non-sworn.

Deputies are issued 50 rounds of .45 and .223 caliber ammunition and five shotgun rounds each, every other month, which is largely used for practice on a shooting range.

“It means a lot to me that I stay proficient at shooting,” Bell said.

When asked about the difference between Lake County Sheriff and his former job as an officer with Flathead Tribal Law Enforcement, Bell said he was doing all the same things he is now, responding to dispatch but now he has to answer 50, “okay, 60” phone calls per day. 

Tribal officers are Montana POST certified, he said, and attend the same law enforcement academy. The LCSO and Tribal Law Enforcement work together, he said.

“When a tribal officer pulls you over, he or she is acting as a Montana Highway Patrolman,” Bell said.

As far as criminal and domestic codes, the tribes are a little bit more strict, he explained. 

Bell also spoke about the overcrowded jail situation; people who need to serve time, but there’s not enough room in the detention center. 

“A couple of wheelbarrows full of money would help,” Bell said. “I could really use 50 more spaces. There are over 800 people waiting to serve time.” 

If deputies pull over someone with a $50,000 or $100,000 warrant and Lake County Detention Center doesn’t have room, that’s not a good situation because if a judge issues that sort of warrant, it’s usually something bad, Bell said.

When asked about plans for the jail, Bell said Barron would be talking about plans at the next Pachyderm meeting. 

Regarding the drug problem, Bell said Lake County is on the U.S. Highway 93 corridor, and local law enforcement uses U.S. government intel to keep law enforcement aware of what’s going on.

Bell and the Tribal Law Enforcement tracked one person who went to 10 different doctors, all of whom prescribed Lortab. He’d take one or two pills and then sell the rest. 

Heroin is coming back as a drug of choice, Bell added. 

Mules, or drug traffickers, use different types of vehicles to sneak by police, and law enforcement uses information from the United States government to spot trends on these vehicles.

Bell also asked the community to keep their eyes open for things that don’t add up or make sense. 

Bell said he was involved in rescuing Ann Sluti, a teenager who was kidnapped from Kearney, Nebraska, transported across state lines and eventually found in a house near Rollins. Although he knew no one should be in the house, the man who contacted dispatch almost didn’t call because he didn’t want to feel foolish. If he hadn’t called, who knows what would have happened to Sluti, Bell said. But thanks to that citizen, she was rescued alive. 

“If you see something that is peculiar, call us,” Bell said.

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