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Merchants confront council, police

| August 6, 2004 12:00 AM

By Brent Shrum, Western News Reporter

Angered by recent acts of vandalism, several downtown merchants attending Monday¹s Libby City Council meeting lashed out at the city police department for not doing more to combat the problem.

Mary Devlin, owner of Shoes and Socks, opened the discussion by asking Mayor Tony Berget why the city chose eight years ago to cancel a contract with the county sheriff¹s office for police protection and re-establish its own department.

³The price was going up and up and up,² Berget said, adding that council members weren¹t satisfied with the coverage county deputies assigned to city duty were giving to Mineral Avenue.

Devlin was critical of the city department¹s policy of responding to assist with ambulance and fire calls outside the city limits, but Berget supported the protocol.

³My brother was in a pretty bad accident, and I¹m thankful for all the people who responded,² he said. ³Their quick response saved his life.²

Chief Clay Coker said the policy is in place ³because we¹re not going to let anybody get hurt.²

Devlin complained that it took 15 minutes for an officer to arrive when she reported vandalism to flowers outside her business the previous week.

³It was not a flower issue,² she said.

She pointed out other recent acts of vandalism including flowers torn from planters and rocks thrown through windows along with a burglary at the Dome Theater.

Coker said he has provided the council with a detailed accounting of how his officers spend their time. Between responding to calls, processing arrests and other demands, officers typically have one hour free to patrol the city.

³If we give 50 percent to Mineral, you get 30 minutes,² Coker said.

Coker recounted 11 calls for police assistance from Devlin since the establishment of the department in 1996. In addition to vandalism and littering complaints, they included incidents involving a disgruntled customer, kids on the roof of the store and girls urinating in the garage.

³Eleven calls in eight years,² Coker said. ³It doesn¹t sound like a crime spree.²

³I¹d just like to ask the chief if he¹s got all these statistics, if he¹s got all his ducks in a row, how much time do his officers spend answering calls outside the city as opposed to inside the city,² said Libby Cafe owner Gary Njirich.

Coker said he can provide those statistics. He explained that the department¹s policy is to respond to assist county officers within a five-mile radius of the city. Potentially life-threatening incidents take precedence over property crimes, he said.

³If I¹ve got to go 10 miles out to save someone¹s life, I¹m going to do it,² he said.

With only one officer on duty at any given time, downtown can¹t receive full coverage by police, Coker said.

³If you want to break something on Mineral, you can do it,² he said.

Roxanne Escudero, owner of For His Glory Photography and Good News Christian Books & Music, complained of picking up broken glass in front of her business every morning.

³Are we garbagemen?² Coker asked. ³Are we babysitters?²

After Devlin¹s complaint about the vandalism to flowers last week, an officer on duty over the weekend decided to spend his entire shift on Mineral Avenue, Coker said. He was called away to respond to a report of a man with a gun, and when he returned to Mineral Avenue he found flowers pulled out of a planter.

³All I¹m saying is the ordinary citizen has a different view of what law enforcement is,² Coker said.

At Berget¹s direction, the council¹s police committee — Charlene Leckrone, Doug Roll and Stu Crismore — agreed to meet with the business owners to address the issue.

Devlin suggested the need for a policy change for the police department.

³You guys as a council, they answer to you,² she said. ³There needs to be something from you guys as a directive as to what they answer and what they don¹t.²