Paying more for police

In an effort to curb crime and protect local businesses, Missoula's Business Improvement District (BID) is paying the Missoula Police Department to have a dedicated officer patrol the urban core.

"We knew something had to give," says BID Director of Operations Rod Austin. "I mean, there are murders in the alley."

Austin says hearing from downtown retailers and restaurateurs about how unchecked public drinking, drug use and violence affects businesses' bottom lines prompted the BID to step up and cover the costs of extra patrolling. As of July 1, BID began paying the Missoula Police Department roughly $7,000 per month to secure a full-time patrol officer for the summer.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir says he's been unable to commit an officer downtown full-time, largely because of staffing constraints exacerbated by a series of tough budget years.

"Their funding was the crucial partnership needed to make it happen," Muir says.

Downtown business owners voice support for the increased patrol, even if it means paying a bit extra through BID assessments. Sabrina Smith, owner of The Green Light on Higgins Avenue, says prior to the officer's arrival law enforcement was often spotty.

"A couple of times I called and no one came down," Smith says.

But now, the newly appointed beat cop, Nicole Pifari, frequently pops into The Green Light.

"I know I can call her," Smith says. "It's just nice to know that someone is around."

The agreement between police and private enterprise is not without precedent. Locally, collaboration of this sort dates back to at least 1931 when, Muir says, area retailers funded Missoula's Merchant Police. The template is now at work in Billings, where Lisa Harmon, director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, says its year-round Cooperative Safety Program cut the number of calls from the urban core to the city's emergency dispatch in half within 12 months.

"It's just been a win-win," Harmon says.

In Missoula, Pifari will continue working downtown through the end of August. Austin doesn't yet know if the BID has resources to fund the position again next year.

"My only regret is it is going to end at the end of summer," he says.

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