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Small force fights back: Belfield's 3 cops battle boom issues, try to build trust within community

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn During a shift last week, Belfield police officer Sgt. Travis Carlson checks a driver’s license after a routine traffic stop for speeding along Highway 85.

BELFIELD — Cops have quite a job here, where oil trucks and drug traffickers alike pass through the elbow of the boom, where Interstate 94 meets U.S. Highway 85.

Since a turbulent 2012, the city has gone from having no police officers to a three-cop force with another officer on the way.

Oil impact money is paying for a year-and-a-half’s salary of a fourth officer, who’s still in academy. Mayor Leo Schneider said the city hasn’t yet committed to funding the position beyond that.

As with many departments in smaller boomtowns, the cops in Belfield are struggling to be proactive crime-fighters, with traffic violations and alcohol- or drug-related crime occupying most of their time. And this department in particular is playing catchup. For the last six months of 2012, the city had no police force at all.

In 2013, the department issued 1,183 citations for speeding.

On the felony side, the office made eight arrests for drug possession with intent to deliver or sell. It also saw 155 misdemeanor drug offenses, with drugs like heroin becoming more commonplace.

“Those numbers speak for themselves,” Sgt. Travis Carlson said.

And he said the serious crime is often caught by those seemingly simple traffic stops.

The force is aware of its reputation for stopping so many drivers along the stretch of Highway 85 that leads to Belfield — but Carlson maintains that it’s for good reason.

“We’re well aware that those major roads are used for trafficking,” he said.

The traffic stop is probable cause that gives cops the chance to get a closer look at some of the people going through town. Officers can then interview the driver to detect any drug use or other crime.

Carlson said up to 95 percent of drug arrests come from encounters that were first initiated because of a traffic violation.

Behind the numbers, the quality of the interactions has also changed. They see more weapons, and more aggressive behavior, said police Chief Nicky Barnhard.

The numbers reflect this behavior — officers in 2013 saw 24 arrests for disorderly conduct, 15 for fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle and eight for resisting arrest. Nine were arrested for terrorizing, a felony.

The department has a collection of weapons it has confiscated, from brass knuckles to shotguns.

It recently encountered a person with a machete and, in another incident, someone threatening with a crescent wrench — “and those were just in the last two weeks,’ Carlson said.

In 2013, the city saw 22 arrests for weapons violations and 17 for possession of a concealed weapon, according to the department’s report.

This year, they’ve already arrested two women for alleged solicitation of prostitution.

Officer Steve Byrne said building trust and rapport with the community — giving people rides home from the bar, for example — helps the cops do their jobs.

The department gave out 40 “sober rides home” in 2013, according to the report, and, in another vein of community relations, routinely visits Belfield Public School for walkthroughs.

Byrne said the department is “trying to instill in the community that … (we’re) not here to arrest everybody.”