Tester talks law enforcement at Glacier Park International

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On Friday morning, Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., visited Glacier Park National Airport for a meeting with Northwest Montana law enforcement officials.

A variety of federal grants supplement local police budgets, and the Flathead Valley’s proximity to the U.S.-Canada border requires cooperation between these agencies and Customs and Border Protection. Last month’s $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill included funding for these efforts.

To find out how federal dollars were working on the ground, Tester met with representatives from Customs and Border Protection, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, the Blackfeet Police Department, the Kalispell Police Department, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Glacier Park International Airport.

The meeting started with an update from those last two agencies. Airport director Rob Ratkowski explained that the government’s Law Enforcement Reimbursement Program helped fund police protection at the airport, while the Screening Partnership Program enabled it to contract with private security operators for screening during high-traffic times of the year.

“You’ve got enough lines here, enough electronic equipment to take care of the peaks and the valleys [in travel volume]?” Tester asked.

“We do,” Ratkowski replied.

Derrick Salmela, Security Manager at Glacier International Airport TSA, added that small airports like Glacier Park rank low on the priority list in the equipment-acquisition process. Tester said he should reach out if they needed equipment, adding that “We all know that bad guys go to the weakest link in the fence.”

The conversation then turned to Operation Stonegarden, a Department of Homeland Security program that provides grants to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border areas. According to Tester aide Marnee Banks, 14 Montana agencies received Stonegarden grants last year. The Kalispell Police Department got $120,000, while the Blackfeet Police Department received $116,800.

“It’s a great tool, especially on the northern border” where federal resources are stretched thin, said Richard “Kipp” Stratton, Patrol Agent in Charge at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Spokane Sector.

Kalispell Police Department Captain Tim Falkner said his agency used the funds to focus on drug and human traffickers. Blackfeet Police Chief Jess Edwards said Stonegarden had also aided drug enforcement on the reservation.

The last main program discussed was the Department of Justice’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. Flathead County and the Blackfeet Nation received $31,850 and $18,244, respectively, from the program last year. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas was also discussed as a source of funding for the Flathead.

Sheriff Curry stressed the seriousness of drug-related crime in Northwest Montana, identifying meth as the worst problem. “If there’s one area in my organization that I think we lack funding, or at least we could certainly better utilize more funding, is in our drug enforcement area,” he told Tester. “If there’s one thing we need to throw more money at, statewide, it’s that.”

Curry’s department did not receive Stonegarden funds last year. He told the Senator that it would be helpful if the grant program covered additional personnel, not just overtime.

Tester said he would see if he could adjust the program’s language. “If drug enforcement is the problem, then I would agree with you. It’s certainly something we spend a lot of time talking about back in D.C.”

Montana’s senior Senator has recently been a vocal advocate for law enforcement and border security. In January, he co-sponsored the Border and Port Security Act to fill an estimated staffing shortage of 3.600 customs agents at ports of agents.

After the meeting, he told reporters that funding for 300 additional agents had been included in the omnibus bill; where they’ll be stationed is up to Customs and Border Protection. The Border and Port Security Act itself remains in committee.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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