Tester addresses law enforcement, mental health
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MONTANA — In a recent press call, Senator Jon Tester addressed bipartisan bills in the works to support Montana’s law enforcement and measures to be taken to support the mental wellbeing of Montanans.
During the week of March 22, Tester backed the “Recruit and Retain Act,” introduced by Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), to improve law enforcement retention. If passed, the bill would authorize approximately $3 million to create law enforcement programs that will allow collaboration between high schools, universities, and Tribal colleges with law enforcement agencies to help those agencies recruit young talent. The bill will also expand Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants to cover certain administrative costs to cover onboarding expenses for new officers, such as the cost of background checks and psychological evaluations, to assist understaffed agencies with hiring.
“We need to recruit the best and the brightest and keep our top-notch officers on the job,” Tester stated.
One common issue faced by rural police departments throughout Montana that was brought up by an attendee of the call is the difficulty getting new officers into the police academy. Presently, the state has only one academy meant to train all new officers and is located in Helena, resulting in long waitlists and significant travel obligations for attendees. While the Recruit and Retain Act won’t necessarily address that issue, Tester shared that what will help is the creation of a second academy.
“I think there’s an opportunity to train officers for towns like Glendive and also train some Native American law enforcement, which the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) badly needs,” Tester commented regarding the creation of another academy. “We don’t have it done yet, but we are working to do exactly that, and it would make a huge difference … If we were to get an academy in eastern Montana it would be a game changer.”
The issue of drugs like fentanyl entering Montana came up during the call as well. In 2022, the Prevent Act and Securing Borders Against Fentanyl Act were both passed to help officers at the southern border prevent drug trafficking by providing tools and equipment to both find and handle dangerous drugs. When asked if these acts would help decrease the use of fentanyl on reservations, Tester explained that the bills are primarily about preventing the drugs from entering the country. However, he stated that making sure that Tribes have adequate law enforcement through resources and manpower would help with the equation.
Another important aspect of battling both fentanyl use and crime throughout Montana is the funding of mental health resources, Tester explained.
“Public education is the foundation of our democracy and to undermine that is a bad thing, so when you have situations like school shooters and issues where kids are put in crisis, it takes away from kids’ ability to learn inside their school,” Tester said. “I’m on a bill to put a psychologist in every school district. I think this would help a lot; there’s not a person that I know that hasn’t had an issue with mental health at some time, because everybody’s been depressed. People have different ways of dealing with depression or mental health issues, and if kids are given these tools at an early age, I think it would help them greatly to know that, number one it’s normal and shouldn’t be stigmatized, and number two, here’s the tools you use to get out of depression.”
Tester recently secured a $1 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to help fund behavioral health clinics in rural America. The hope, Tester explained, is that it will allow behavior health clinics to be more effective and treat more people so that when individuals are in crisis, they will be able to receive more local and immediate care. “We are either one or two when it comes to suicide in the nation. That’s a direct indication of mental health and so we need some resources … If you don’t have the mental healthcare professionals – and we’re working on loan forgiveness and things like that to get folks to become psychologists and psychiatrists and work in rural areas – then it becomes really tough to deal with the issue.”
To track the progress of the Recruit and Retain Act through Congress, visit: www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/546