Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson has made good on his campaign pledge to open sheriff’s office substations in outlying areas of the county, but it took three murders to get the latest field office open.
The Florence field office opened about a week after the bodies of Dorothy Harris, 62, Brenda Patch, 44 and Cynthia Paulus, 71, were discovered Nov. 6 at Harris’s shop, The Hair Gallery, on U.S. Highway 93 in Florence.
When Johnson ran for office in 1998 he made a campaign promise to open field offices in various Bitterroot Valley communities where deputies could interview witnesses, write reports and establish a stronger law enforcement presence.
The cost of operating field offices has discouraged Johnson from fully keeping his pledge, though he did open one such station in the Montana Highway Patrol office in Stevensville. A second office, in Darby, was planned when the murders were discovered.
After the triple homicide, Johnson inquired into renting an office space in Florence, near The Hair Gallery. Building owner Duane Knapp offered the first month free. “He said ‘If you want it, why don’t you just take it,’ so we did,” says Johnson. Now Johnson says he’s going to have to come up with the cash if he wants to keep the office open beyond that time. “Whether or not I can afford to keep it after this month remains to be seen,” he says.
In fact, Ravalli County commissioners this year had to transfer $447,000 from the federal “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” grant awarded to the county each year, which is not earmarked for any specific projects, to the sheriff’s office just to keep it out of the red, according to Commissioner Betty Lund. Normally, that grant would be deposited into the county’s general fund.
Having a field office in Florence doesn’t mean there will be a deputy on site 24/7, says Johnson. “What people have to understand is sometimes we only have two officers on shift [countywide].”
What the substation will do is cut down on the wasted commute time for officers traveling between Hamilton, where the sheriff’s office is located, and Florence, where the homicide investigation continues. “I just didn’t want to waste the time [traveling],” he says. “You’ve only got so many minutes. You can use your minutes in the community, or you can use your minutes on the highway.”
Whether an already-established field office would have prevented the three homicides is impossible to say, Johnson says, though he suspects it would not have made a difference, since plenty of American cities have fully-staffed neighborhood police precincts, but murders still take place in those same neighborhoods.
Even in far-flung Montana communities it’s not clear that field stations deter crime. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, for example, lived within a short walking distance of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department field station in Lincoln.
Murder is going to occur when the killer is bent on killing, says Johnson. “Some people just have an agenda.”