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Police begin patrols downtown to curb panhandling
Missoula Police Department Patrol Lt. Shawn Paul talks with lunch clients outside the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission on Wednesday during a foot patrol through downtown Missoula. Police have started the daytime foot patrols in response to concerns about panhandlers and transients in the downtown area. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Police officers walking the downtown beat probably should not be adrenaline junkies.

At least for a couple of hours Wednesday, the panhandlers who disturb retailers and customers were away from their usual posts along the "transient circuit."

"It's odd to have such a nice day and no real activity," said Missoula Police Department Patrol Lt. Shawn Paul.

This week, the Police Department added biking and walking officers downtown, and Paul was one of two officers strolling the streets Wednesday. A Panhandling Working Group recently proposed the police step up their presence in the city center to deter aggressive panhandling and unseemly behaviors, like defecating in alleys.

Paul said an officer dealt with seven transients Tuesday, but the streets were quiet Wednesday. Down Higgins Avenue near Charlie B's, Paul stopped two men and asked them not to jaywalk. He didn't give them tickets, though.

One man told Paul the last time he'd been spoken to about jaywalking was in communist Poland.

"Seriously, I hope you have more important things to do," the man said.

A couple blocks later, a regular street person approached Paul - who was in full uniform - and told the officer to contact the cops.

"They tried to put Jodie Foster into a machine," he said.

Paul wished him a good day and walked on. The cops walking the beat need to defuse interactions that could become verbal disputes and also recognize the difference between troublemakers and people who are mentally ill,

he said.

They need to be good communicators, too, Paul said. He said the downtown job is more about establishing relationships than writing citations, though they do that as well. Someone he visits with today may give him a tip about a culprit later on.

"It's really important to build up that rapport," Paul said.

On his trip, he snooped in an alley and stairway behind Charlie B's. He checked the nooks and crannies behind buildings that face Front Street and back Caras Park. He walked under the deck that hangs over Brennan's Wave and scoped out the Missoula County Courthouse lawn. He wandered through the parking lot behind The Depot and peeked behind the elevator on the Northside bicycle and pedestrian bridge.

He found a surfer under the Brennan's Wave deck, and that's about it. Paul asked the surfer whether transients still congregate under the deck and learned they haven't been around as much this year.

Though things were quiet Wednesday, they aren't always. Street people often are armed to protect themselves from each other, and many have nothing to lose by attacking an officer, Paul said. So police are on alert when they're on the job.

Paul also said while he didn't hand out any tickets Wednesday, he may write a jaywalking citation if someone's crossing disrupts the flow of traffic. When police step up efforts in one area, they count more violations at first and then see a decrease. One key to a successful program is a consistent police presence, he said.

At the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission, Paul learned one possible reason the streets were empty of panhandlers. He talked with Joe Popovich and asked him why downtown was empty. Evidently, transients heard the police were going to be out and about.

"I told 'em to roll," Paul said Popovich responded.

Popovich also said many people who would otherwise be downtown left to go to a Rainbow Family gathering in Wyoming. He said he tells street people to pick up their trash and say things like "thank you" and "have a good day," but many of those behaving badly downtown aren't regular Missoulians but out-of-towners.

"It's the ones that come through," he said.

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