Stevensville Police Chief James Marble is currently working through several felony cases and has a stack of 80 misdemeanors on his desk that he needs to address sometime soon.
But with two recent resignations from his three-person police department – a number that includes himself – the chief is finding it challenging to get it all done alone.
“It’s not possible to get to all the issues that I need to address,” Marble said. “It’s frustrating is what it is.”
Adding to Marble’s frustration this week was a press release announcing the police department resignations from the town’s mayor, Brandon Dewey, that appeared to challenge the culture of the community’s police department.
“Discussions will be held internally to address retention and culture within SPD to provide for more effective service,” Dewey wrote as part of the release.
That statement didn’t land well with a chief who’s served in that capacity since 2004.
“It is apparent that the mayor feels that the officers that have worked for the police department are subpar,” Marble said. “I would like to be on the record as saying that although there have been issues with employees in the past, the majority of the officers, both reserves and full-time, that have worn the SPD badge had done so with honor and integrity.”
Three of the town’s reserve officers have been hired by other law enforcement agencies and have excelled in their new positions, he said. Two full-time officers have left seeking better pay and a chance for upward mobility with larger agencies.
Retention of employees on police departments is an issue for many small communities.
“Twenty years ago, when I started my career, officers were more inclined to stay with a department because they invested in the community and felt a sense of loyalty,” Marble said. “The reality now is that there are few officers that intend to stay in any departments. Officers are looking for better pay, better benefits and advancement options.
“The mindset has changed and that’s OK,” Marble said. “We must get creative with it on ways to augment pay.”
Marble has offered suggestions to the town council on how that might occur, including offering reduced water and sewer rates or allowing officers to stay in town-owned properties in lieu of increased wages.
As for looking at the culture of the force, Marble said he disagreed “wholeheartedly” with the mayor.
The department’s mission statement reads: “To provide safety, security and support to the citizens of Stevensville through professional and compassionate law enforcement services.”
“Every officer who comes here is taught what the mission of the SPD truly is and is instructed on how to complete that mission on every shift,” Marble said. “Every officer must believe in the mission of the SPD to be effective. Those officers who don’t truly buy in don’t last, period. It is what keeps us moving forward.”
Marble said Dewey’s concern about police hiring practices is misplaced.
“The Chief of Police is not the one who hires or fires officers,” Marble said. “Many people aren’t aware of this. Although it is true that the chief’s job is to make a recommendation, it is the duty of the mayor to hire and fire all line staff… The process is such that no one person has unilateral decision making regarding hiring an officer by the mayor.
“It’s definitely not that I’m turning a blind eye to the issues,” he said. “I know what they are. I’ve been a police chief for 16 years. I’m working on them and trying to find creative ways to address them. I’m sorry that he doesn’t see it that way.”
Dewey’s press release followed the resignation of one officer earlier this week who is under investigation by the Ravalli County sheriff’s office for issues not related to his law enforcement position. Another officer resigned in May. She had been severely injured in an off-duty motorcycle crash and was later cited for DUI.
Dewey said the question about credibility of the town’s police force has to be asked.
“We’re seeing this pattern of resignations from the police department for multiple reasons,” Dewey said. “Some are happening for feel-good reasons and are not feel good…We have officers who have come under investigation for different conduct that's mostly off-duty, although there has been some on-duty issues in the lengthy past.
“These off-duty incidents impact the credibility of our organization,” Dewey said. “My concern is that our police department remains credible and that our citizens take it seriously.”
The town council will begin discussions Monday on whether the community should contract law enforcement service with the Ravalli County sheriff’s office. Dewey said two council members asked Wednesday for that item to be added to the agenda.
A community member also asked that the council talk about the issue of providing 24/7 law enforcement coverage for the town.
“I think those questions need to be asked,” Dewey said. “What does our community law enforcement presence look like in the future? Those are discussions that need to be held at the community level. People need to develop a vision and decide what the community’s priorities should be for law enforcement.”
Dewey said his discussion this week with Marble was uncomfortable because the chief felt his integrity was being questioned.
“Those questions have to be asked,” Dewey said. “They’ve already been asked of me and my ability to lead this town.”
The town will soon be advertising for a half-time police officer, a half-time school resource officer and a full-time police officer.