“That guy could have killed someone,” Missoula police officer Ethan Smith said.
Smith was driving slowly by a group of other law enforcement patrol cars that were gathered in the westbound lanes of Interstate 90 around midnight on Feb. 13, just west of the Reserve Street on-ramp. The mix of Montana Highway Patrol and Missoula sheriff’s deputies laid out spike sticks to puncture the tires of a drunken driver who was coming the wrong way down I-90 from the Wye.
Smith had trailed a bit behind the other units that had stopped the car, and was there to help direct traffic if necessary.
There were a couple of reasons why Smith hadn’t sped up to help stop the driver. The first was that it was really more of a Highway Patrol and Missoula County Sheriff’s Office incident, and the other was that he wasn’t alone in his cruiser. That Saturday evening, Smith had a newspaper reporter riding shotgun to show him what a night in the job of Missoula police officer was like.
The Feb. 13 ride-along, which lasted until around 1:30 a.m., wasn’t all tense emergency situations like the wrong-way driver. What stood out wasn’t Smith’s attitude or response to a dangerous situation, but the demeanor he had during a series of other calls that night. Most of what the Missoula police officer was dispatched to handle didn’t necessarily fall under the category of crimes.
Mediating a dispute over the custody of children between two parents. Talking with two women, each of whom accused the other of stalking them. Spending 15 minutes on the phone with a mentally ill woman who was having a bad night and had lost hold of reality. Going to the apartment of a man who had been sending messages to a friend that he intended to hurt himself. In all of them, officer Smith tried to find a solution to a situation where nobody had necessarily committed a crime worthy of an arrest or citation.
“My job is completely dictated by other people’s actions,” Smith said at the start of the ride-along, a phrase he would use several times during the course of the night.
Spending a night riding with a Missoula patrol officer was one of the components of the department’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Academy, an eight-week program designed to better familiarize members of the public with the different jobs and divisions of the city’s police department.
Wednesday was the fourth class of the academy, focusing on the Missoula Police Department’s detective division.
Detective Mitchell Lang said the division’s average workload at any given time is 12 cases per detective. On a constant basis, detectives are reevaluating the priority of the cases they are working on, largely based on the threat to the community and the possibility that letting it fall too deep in the stack could mean missing out on evidence.
As part of its agreement with the federal Department of Justice over the handling of sexual assault cases, the Missoula Police Department established a special victims unit, where sex crimes and related cases are assigned to detectives with special training.
One of those detectives, Jamie Merifield, typically takes cases involving domestic violence.
“We’re dealing with people at the worst times. We don’t deal with them when they’ve won the lottery or had a baby or gotten married. We talk to them when they’ve been raped,” she said.
Another aspect of her position is monitoring the Montana sex offender registry, a task Merifield referred to as “The world’s worst babysitting job.”
Detective Chris Shermer ended the night by showing helicopter-captured video of a 2013 sting operation that arrested seven people who had come to a Missoula home with the intent of meeting a 12-year-old for sex, only to find the police standing in the living room.
Shermer is the Missoula Police Department’s representative in the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children task force, a position paid for through a grant from Whitefish philanthropist Mike Goguen.
Sex stings are a rare, expensive and time consuming process, Shermer said. His usual work includes using computer programs that search the Internet for child pornography or browsing sections of Craigslist to find people looking for sexual encounters with kids.
But even the act of teens sending lewd photos to each other is considered child pornography, the detective said.
“About 20 percent of my day is dealing with kids who are sexting,” Shermer said, talking about a recent case of a girl who was sending nude photos to her boyfriend, who was selling them at school.