By Robert Lucke
Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson occupies a medium-sized office in the police department. As he talked about his department and Havre, there was no slouching. He sat up straight and meant business, smiling occasionally.
Olson is responsible for 19 sworn police officers and a support staff of six full-timers and three part-timers.
Since July, Olson's department has had its own dispatchers. The 911 calls are still answered at the Hill County Sheriff's Office.
"Sometimes people don't realize that this is a city communication center. We answer all the police, fire, ambulance and public works calls," Olson said. "In fact our center is run by a committee of a fire department member, a police department member and a public works member."
The city communications center was started when the sheriff's department moved to the new detention center. Police department personnel realized there was a need for a place to handle walk-in traffic in a downtown location.
"Based on the call load in the last two to three years, we knew we had to have a place that was readily available to citizens in the community," Olson stated. "Our center is on line with the sheriff's office so we can communicate with each other easily."
The walk-in traffic happens from 4 p.m. to midnight and might consist of reports of crime, accident reports, witnesses who need to talk to a member of the police department, or maybe someone wanting to pay on a fine.
"Havre is too big a city not to have this place," Olson said. "Lots of people are indigent and don't have telephones and we get people passing through Havre and cannot find a phone."
Olson has seen changes in his department and Havre since the events of Sept. 11. He thinks people are much more knowledgeable about what is going on around them and they are good about knowing when to call the police and when not to. People are much more vigilant around the community.
"We used to take a lot of safety and security for granted," he said. "Now it is something we strive for every day.
"Another thing it did was change the way racial profiling is looked at," he said. "For law enforcement, when someone's skin color was the sole basis for an arrest, that was wrong and I like to think it didn't happen. However, after 9-11 racial, profiling took a back seat. I still think it is wrong. We have a lot of Arabs and Muslims living among (us) and we should not label them as terrorists."
Crimes in Havre are for the large part property crimes like thefts and bad checks. Leaving keys and valuables in cars and letting them warm up without locking them are not good ideas. Olson thinks Havre people can stop a lot of that kind of crime from happening if they lock cars, don't leave them idling without locking them, and don't leave valuables in cars in plain sight.
Remember to be vigilant, he said. If it doesn't look right, it probably isn't right.
Olson sees the city of Havre changing daily even though the population has remained pretty stable in the last 30 years. Right now the economy is down and many businesses are struggling, and the dynamics of the city are changing as well. Havre citizens today can walk down the street and not see anyone they know. That wasn't true a few years ago.
"I think we should greet people we do not know, welcome them but look at them with a skeptical eye," Olson advised. "The trouble is we just don't know about people. Even the bad people are good some of the time."
Demands on the police department have increased. In 1973 the Havre Police Department received 6,189 calls for service. Last year the department received more than 15,000 calls. About 2,000 of them were of serious criminal activity, including homicide, rape and theft. The other 13,000 ranged from things like traffic accidents to disorderly conduct and barking dogs.
"People should not have the perception that crime is running rampant even if we were sixth in the state for crime in 1999. Most of our crimes are thefts," Olson said. "We are not surrounded by criminals in this town."
Police officers have changed in the last 25 years, according to Olson. They have gone from a more vocational background to a professional education. Of his 19 police officers, 10 have college degrees. Those are needed because the job more and more involves communication with citizens, judges and juries. Police jobs also have become much more competitive, and cities the size of Havre are stepping stones to other cities. Olson looks for the best and most balanced when Havre is hiring a new police officer.
Some things do not change from year to year.
"Our officers see the worst of the worst, and year after year it begins to take its toll," Olson said. "I encourage my police officers to get involved with their families and to go to community functions. If they become good officers as well as good neighbors, the job will be easier for them."
Olson weighed in on the need for Havre to have a city chaplain.
"We are excited about reinstating the chaplain. Rowlie Hutton is looking at the 1987 guidelines to make them more user-friendly," he said. "We could use a chaplain for employee wellness, to assist in all city services and in dealing with city crises."
Olson thinks the more people trained in the community to help in the healing processes, the better off the community will be.
Olson does not have a pet peeve about his job. However his desire is that everyone in Havre take it upon themselves to get to know their neighbors and neighborhoods and to report suspicious activities. But maybe that does not include turning in a neighbor for a barking dog when a friendly call to the neighbor could do the job. If that doesn't work, it's time for a call to the police.
"I don't want people to be vigilantes. Don't ever hesitate to call," he said. "But in Havre we need to do a better job of knowing the people around us and to solve problems in our neighborhoods as a community."
President Bush proposed a citizen brigade in his State of the Union message. Havre already has one, Olson thinks. It is not organized but has been utilized for some 50 years. Anytime there is a crisis, if city officials make some calls, within five minutes there are contractors, plumbers, electricians and many others on the scene to help out in any way they can. He thinks that maybe it would be important to inventory retired teachers, doctors, etc., just to have a list that the city could rely on.
"But we don't need a formal agreement," he said. "Seventy -five percent of Havre would bend over backwards in time of crises, whether they be farmers and ranchers or railroad workers. Everyone has something to offer. For that, as a community, we are blessed."