“In my experience these things come in threes. Right now I’m kind of waiting for the third. I hope I’m wrong.”
Lt. Mike Pfau of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department couldn’t know how right he would be. Less then 12 hours after Pfau spoke those words in an interview with the Independent last Friday, sheriff’s deputies arrested a man in connection with a stabbing death. It was the third death that week, capping one of Missoula’s most violent sprees in recent memory.
It started Sunday, April 10, when hikers discovered the still-breathing body of 18-year-old Fredrick Wasson, who had been shot in the head and dumped near Dry Gulch west of Missoula. Wasson later died from his injuries.
On Wednesday—one day after Idaho police arrested Robert Gardner, the alleged assailant in the Wasson murder—Missoula police were involved in a shootout near McCormick Park with 30-year-old Justin James Banta of Billings. Banta shot at police and wounded Officer Rick Stevenson before police returned fire, killing the gunman. It was the first officer-involved shooting in Missoula since October 2003, when an officer shot at a man he believed had fired a gun at officers.
Then, shortly before midnight last Friday, Missoula County Sheriff’s officers arrested Christopher Katsel for allegedly stabbing Vernon Azure to death at Missoula Village West trailer court on Highway 10, fulfilling Lt. Pfau’s dark prophecy.
“The law of averages comes into play here,” says Sgt. Geron Wade of the Missoula Police Department, one of the officers involved in last week’s shootout. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a violent death [in Missoula].”
Experts categorize the seemingly random rash of violence in Western Montana as a “spike,” as distinct from a trend, but when a series of “critical incidents” are concentrated within a short period of time, law enforcement personnel—from administrators to patrol officers—reevaluate their levels of awareness and preparedness.
According to the Montana Board of Crime (MBC), homicide rates in Montana have remained fairly steady over the past 25 years and remain low compared to national averages.
But outgoing Police Chief Bob Weaver says as the area grows in population, violent crime is bound to grow with it.
“I’ve been in this department for 33 years. I see the same crimes I did 33 years ago, there’s just more of them now,” Weaver says.
With fewer than a million people in the state, high-profile violent crime has a far greater impact on residents and law enforcement than in high population centers, says Lt. Gregg Willoughby of the Missoula Police Department.
“This is a small community and we’re a small department,” Willoughby says. “We know everybody we work with and most of us socialize within the department. When we have an incident like what happened last Wednesday, it has a pretty big impact on all of us.”
According to both police and sheriff’s department officials, officer training plays a critical role in their ability to deal with high-intensity situations, both during and after an event.
Missoula police, for example, periodically take part in scenario and safety training, and undergo firearms training twice a year. (Officers can also draw 100 rounds of practice ammunition each month to practice).
Training for a situation is one thing. Dealing with the outcome of an officer-involved shooting is another. Officers who are involved in shootings are placed on paid administrative leave in both the police and sheriff’s departments.
Weaver says the leave period gives the officer an opportunity to heal emotionally, and sometimes physically, from the traumatic incident.
“It’s important for them to spend time with family members who are also deeply affected by what happened,” Weaver explains. “A lot of times [family members] are at work or school when the news breaks in and they hear about an incident. They don’t know if it was one of their loved ones that was shot. There are a lot of issues that officers need some time to deal with before coming back to work.”
Capt. Susan Hintz of the sheriff’s department says officers in her department go through at least one session of posttraumatic stress counseling as well.
“[An officer involved shooting] is a traumatic experience, even if it is justified,” Hintz says.
Hintz adds that the department makes the first counseling session mandatory so officers don’t feel embarrassed to ask for it.
According to Weaver, once all officers involved in a shooting have given official statements, a debriefing takes place to determine what, if anything, could have been done to improve the outcome.
“We look at our training, our policies and we look to see if anything needs to be changed,” Weaver says.
According to Sgt. Rob Taylor of the sheriff’s department, law enforcement officers go through their daily lives with a different level of awareness than the average citizen. He says cops aren’t paranoid, but what he calls “hyper-vigilant.”
“Being paranoid is being afraid of something that doesn’t exist,” Taylor explains. “Cops are hyper-vigilant of threats they know are out there.
“You go through this stage where you think: ‘That could have been me. Is my training as sharp as it could be?’” he says. “In the wake of a critical incident like this, where you have an officer-involved shooting, I know I look at every part of my job and rethink, ‘Have I been slacking? Have I become complacent?’”
Complacency kills, says Taylor, and that’s a point driven home by last week’s shooting.
But he adds that through training and experience, law enforcement officers gain the confidence they need to react to critical situations.
“The one constant thing in training is that nothing is routine,” Taylor says.
“Over the years there have been a lot of citizens who don’t understand what we do,” Pfau says. “They think we get paid pretty good money to drive around in our cars. They don’t understand that we don’t get paid so much for what we do as for what we know how to do.”