It was early 2006 and Ethan Smith — now an officer with the Missoula Police Department — was wearing an orange jumpsuit in the cell at the Lake County jail.
Smith, who spent a decade as a journalist before becoming a cop, was at the time editor of the Lake County Leader in Polson, and convinced then-Sheriff Bill Barron to let him spend a day in lockup for a series of articles about the experience.
The relationships he built with officers during his time at the paper helped to turn around the Virginia native’s feeling about police.
“I grew up hating cops. I did not like law enforcement at all,” Smith said. “I realized working as a newspaper editor how wrong I was about people’s perception of law enforcement, about my perception of it.”
Smith joined the reserve deputy unit after his jailhouse stay, and in late 2009 made a career change and joined the Missoula Police Department.
For the past year he’s been the department’s crime prevention officer. It’s a role different from his previous job out on patrol, or the work done by the city’s detectives. Rather than move from incident to incident or investigation to investigation, Smith is tasked with helping the department — and the city along with it — look for solutions to help stop a crime from happening at all.
“The police department has removed me from those calls and said, ‘Hey, Ethan, can you look at some of the long-term headaches that we are dealing with?” Smith said.
Take car thefts for example.
“Well over 80 percent of car thefts, the owner left their keys in the car. It can drive us up the wall sometimes,” Smith said. “The problem is 20 years ago Missoula was a really nice friendly family city. You could leave your doors unlocked. But it just isn’t that anymore.”
Staying on the subject of cars, Smith said thefts of items out of vehicles have also become more widespread. Again, Smith said the crime is almost always due to doors left unlocked, something he mentions when he talks to local groups.
“Breaking into motor vehicles, actual break-ins of windows for example, is maybe once a month. But 15 times a week something gets stolen out of a car because the owner left it unlocked,” he said. “That’s a crime that’s easily preventable.”
After years as a magazine writer on the East Coast, Smith’s path to Montana came through a 2000 family trip to Glacier National Park.
“As soon as I got off the plane in Kalispell I thought I’d never smelled air that clean,” he said.
It would be another year and a half, until the middle of the sniper attacks around Washington, D.C., in 2002, that Smith decided to give in to the temptation of that fresh air and moved across the country to make Montana his new home.
Although he still frequently wears his patrol uniform to work and heads out to calls when patrol is stretched thin, Smith’s assignment allows him to work on larger projects, including revitalizing the neighborhood watch programs among the 20 officially designated neighborhoods that make up the city.
As more new people move to Missoula, and an affordable housing problem means a high number of renters who tend to move around the city, Smith says he sees fewer and fewer residents who know their neighbors.
“I’ve asked people, ‘How many people on your block have your phone number? How many could get in touch with you if they saw something odd happening at your house?’” Smith said.
Smith has been visiting neighborhood council meetings looking for people to be part of the watch programs and encouraging them to make an effort to walk around their block and say hi to the people who live around them.
Neighbors looking out for each other is what the project is all about, Smith says, contrasting it with the idea of someone taking it upon themselves to act as an one-person security force for their area.
“We don’t want citizen patrols walking up and down the block. We don’t want that at all,” Smith said.
This fall he intends to hold more meetings about the neighborhood watch program, as well as information for residents on how to stay aware of warning signs, and advice on home security systems or external security cameras.
At some point, Smith said he would like to start a list of residents who have cameras that might catch sight of something that happens on the street, likening it to the list the police put together two years ago of downtown businesses with external security cameras.
If something happens in a Missoula neighborhood, such a list would help officers approach a resident whose camera may have captured something that would be useful in solving a crime, before that footage might be deleted or overwritten.
The idea of locals helping each other out and watching out for their fellow Missoulian runs through most of Smith’s work as crime prevention officer.
Last week, he held a pair of presentations to the staff of a local medical center, providing de-escalation training to employees who often work with people who are experiencing mental health crises. Smith has held similar training with a variety of businesses around town.
“A lot of people worry if they call the cops, it means we have to arrest somebody. That isn’t true. We have a lot of other methods we can employ to deal with people in crisis,” he said. “You can call 911 if someone is being disruptive in your restaurant, but a lot of companies just want to know how to deal with those people more compassionately.”