Of the eight Montana Highway Patrol districts, District 6 is consistently one of the busiest. The district covers Flathead, Lake and Lincoln counties.
“This area is unique because we have the three cities — Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls — but we also have the smaller unincorporated areas like Bigfork and Marion where we don’t have an established law-enforcement presence,” said Trooper Robert Hensley.
According to the Montana Highway Patrol’s 2015 Annual Report, only two districts had more than 2,000 crash investigations: Kalispell and Missoula. District 1 which encompasses Sanders, Mineral, Missoula and Ravalli counties, had 43 more crash investigations than District 6. In 2014 and 2013, District 6 had the most per state.
“On average in District 6 we have 300 more crashes investigated annually,” said Capt. Duane Bowers, District 6 commander.
District 6 extends from Arlee up to the Canadian border, and from the Idaho border to Browning. In 2015, 31 troopers drove 760,877 miles answering 22,600 calls for service, giving 2,528 citizen assists, investigating 2,029 crashes, making 12,188 traffic stops and writing 9,291 citations. Incidentally District 6 troopers wrote more than twice as many warnings as citations. This means that out of every three times a driver was pulled over, only one in three get a ticket.
“Every day, the dedicated men and women of the Montana Highway Patrol come to work with one goal in mind: to make our roads safer,” said Attorney General Tim Fox in his opening letter for the Montana Highway Patrol 2015 Annual Report.
“Our troopers understand the tragedy of fatal accidents better than most because they see it almost daily. Often they are the first ones to arrive at the scene of a crash. They see firsthand the carnage and destruction … most highway fatalities in Montana are the result of driver behavior, and thus are entirely preventable,” said Fox.
“In this area the biggest issue is people driving too fast for the conditions,” said Trooper Eric Thoreson. “Every year we have an increase of incidents as winter weather sets in and unprepared drivers don’t yet have their cars ready for the cold and icy road conditions. Once the first storms hit most people get their snow tires, but still, they misjudge the conditions and drive too fast.”
“One of the issues we face in this district is we have drivers from out of state who are inexperienced as to what a Montana winter can bring and how fast road conditions can change,” Bowers said. “What people don’t understand is there are times when 30 miles per hour is too fast.”
THE HIGHWAY Patrol takes the mission of safety on the roads seriously. While crashes and enforcement are a big part of their job, so is helping stranded motorists, changing tires, helping drivers who find themselves unable to drive at full speed safely get off the highways and to their destinations.
“We’re not out here to make people’s lives miserable,” Thoreson said. “We’re out here to keep people safe.”
“(Trooper) Bob (Hensley) just got a compliment from a driver,” said Bowers with a smile on his face.
A woman Hensley helped hand-wrote a letter explaining their situation. She and her son were on U.S. 2 when they began to notice steam or smoke coming from their engine. They pulled over and were assisted by Hensley. He helped them look under the hood, determine what needed to be done, drove to the nearest auto parts store in Columbia Falls, asked another trooper to sit with them so they felt safe while stranded so close to the highway until he returned, came back with the part they needed and extra antifreeze, fixed the problem, and got them back on their way.
“With much of the national media being so anti-police the troopers are seeing a rise in the number of people who choose to be non-compliant,” Bowers said. “They find themselves dealing with more people who choose to be disrespectful and antagonistic and think that kind of behavior is OK.”
And yet the Montana troopers remain hopeful.
“The biggest point I want to make is this: the public support that we do have from the ‘silent majority’ is so much larger than the resistance we face,” Bowers said. “When we go out to lunch we have had people anonymously purchase lunch for an entire table of cops. We get so many people who stop us to shake our hands and say thank you. With the national media so often being negative and emphasizing the times when things go wrong, our troopers are reassured by the people who are kind and supportive.”
“In 2015 there were more than 11 million arrests nationally. For perspective imagine this: that would be every man woman and child in the state of Montana being arrested 11 times. Compare that with the number of incidents where arrests go wrong,” Bowers said.
He makes no attempt to deny that when things go badly and lives are lost it is a tragedy. But he points out that many of the cases that attract national attention have been proven justified. He also stresses his confidence that in those situations if the people involved had been cooperative there would have been a different outcome.
“Our troopers are out here to do a job,” Bowers said. “And going home at the end of the day is one of their goals.”
Photographer Brenda Ahearn can be reached at 758-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.