What’s More Important, Missoula’s Image or Its Citizens?
Earlier this month, Missoulian reporter Martin Kidston wrote a sort of ridiculous piece about “Missoula time” and how this alleged concept of “just chilling” may explain Missoula’s economic stagnation. Though the framing Kidston uses is a bit ridiculous, the complicated issue of Missoula’s economic woes is not. Contrasting Bozeman with Missoula, Kidston makes some interesting observations:
As goes UM, so goes Missoula. It works the other way around as well; it’s a symbiotic dance we can’t escape.
The symptoms of stagnation are all around us, punctuated perhaps by the Missoula Mercantile, which sits empty year after year. Bozeman, in contrast, reports a downtown vacancy rate of just 5 percent.
Looking for other comparisons? Why does the proposed Hotel Fox in Missoula get pushed back while Bozeman approved and will soon see construction begin on a new eight-story, 102-room hotel, making it the tallest building in the city?
“A downtown has to change or it dies,” Bozeman Deputy Mayor Jeff Krauss told the Daily Chronicle. “You see small towns fading away everywhere. We are not one of them.”
This isn’t pointing blame at our local leaders. Rather, I’d like to ask the larger question: What does Missoula want to become and how (and when) will it find its new post-recession identity?
I think a lot of Missoulians would like to see themselves as part of an idyllic liberal college town where we buy healthy food at the farmer’s market and recreate in the wilderness. This is the image of Missoula found in outdoor magazines. For those with the money to make this image their reality, it’s great.
A lot of recent conflicts stem from how Missoula leaders have decided to respond to issues that deviate from the ideal image. From what I have seen, it appears our city leaders are more interested in protecting the image than they are in understanding and addressing the issues.
Chronic homelessness is therefore framed as a debilitating phenomenon disproportionately impacting downtown businesses, and resources are allocated to specifically police the issue. Of course, having their own police officer was deemed insufficient, so businesses decided to push for more, and in their misguided attempt to deal with aggressive behavior, they advocated for ordinances that would criminalize sitting on downtown sidewalks.
Then there are the systemic problems with how our justice system responds to accusations of sexual assault and domestic violence. While some of our leaders have taken steps to improve how victims who come forward to report crimes are treated, the Missoula County attorney’s office, headed by Van Valkenburg, is resisting accountability, and putting taxpayers on the hook.
In tough economic times, societal problems, like substance abuse and domestic violence, increase. This Huffington Post article from two years ago makes that very point:
A new survey by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has found that police departments across the country are encountering more instances of domestic violence related to the poor economy, USA Today reports.
More than half of the 700 law enforcement agencies polled for the survey reported seeing a rise in “domestic conflicts” related to the economy during 2011, according to USA Today. That’s a sharp increase from the numbers reported in a similar 2010 survey, when 40 percent of agencies reported seeing an increase in such cases.
Scott Thompson, the Chief of Police in Camden, N.J., spoke to the paper about the survey results and said that his city saw a 20 percent increase in domestic incidents and a 10 percent increase in domestic-related aggravated assaults from 2010 to 2011. Thompson noted that the unemployment rate in the city is currently 19 percent.
“When stresses in the home increase because of unemployment and other hardships, domestic violence increases,” Thomson told the paper. “We see it on the street.”
In today’s Missoulian, this article looks at the same issue, and despite significant increases in reported incidents of domestic abuse, there has been a decrease in cases filed and a decrease in offenders enrolled in court-ordered programs:
According to the Montana Board of Crime Control, violent crime is on the rise – a factor that law enforcement attributes to the recession and the community’s slow economic recovery. When frustrations about money – or the lack thereof – run high, violence in the home is a real concern, explained Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jason Marks.
“I can’t tell you how many (partner/family member assaults) I’ve read where they were arguing about money and it escalated radically from there,” he said.
Missoula County prosecutors filed 132 partner/family member assault cases in 2011, but by 2013 there were only 94 cases on the docket.
That’s a 30 percent decrease in filings.
The city of Missoula’s numbers are similar. In 2011 and 2012, there were 241 and 250 cases, respectively. In 2013, the number of domestic violence cases filed by prosecutors decreased to 187.
The sharp decline could be attributed to more crimes being charged as a higher felony with stricter penalties and longer probationary period, Marks explained.
He doesn’t see the decrease as a problem.
A heightened awareness of domestic violence could be the reason the number of law enforcement reports of partner/family member assault are up, Marks said. He also argues that there’s not a direct correlation between law enforcement reports and cases filed in court.
Doesn’t see the decrease as a problem? Really? Here’s more:
Neither city or county prosecutors could account for the falling number of convicted offenders enrolled in the CAVE and MAN programs.
Scott noted that some offenders are Native American and attend counseling sessions on the Flathead Reservation. Missoula Municipal Court, he said, routinely orders petitions to revoke to make those shrugging off their mandatory counseling enroll in the programs.
“But we don’t handhold them and walk them down there ourselves,” he said.
He said a grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control in 2011 has evolved to help the city court keep tabs on convicted abusers by ordering more petitions to revoke and applying a period of misdemeanor probation.
A study conducted that year by the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants concluded that seven out of 10 people sentenced to anger management classes for domestic violence charges didn’t complete them.
When you contrast this information with how downtown businesses want to increase accountability for the discomforting behavior of people suffering from addiction and mental illness, something is seriously fucked up.
So what do we want to protect, Missoula? Our image, or our citizens?