About a year ago, Keith Stahlberg was in pursuit of a suspect near Martin City. He had hit the man with a Taser, but the perpetrator managed to get away in the woods in the dark. He tried to radio for backup, but his radio didn’t work. He could hear dispatch, but dispatch couldn’t hear him.
At one point, Stahlberg said he had his gun in one hand, his cell phone in another and was trying to search with a flashlight for the subject. This was no way to do police work, he thought.
Rather than risk being harmed by a suspect that may have been armed, he gave up the pursuit.
Not surprisingly. fixing the county’s 911 and its radio system is tops on Stahlberg’s list of why he’s running for Flathead County Sheriff. As in this case, the radio system police rely on every day often has dead spots, Stahlberg noted, particularly in the north end of the valley.
Stahlberg has been a deputy in the department a little more than 15 years. He is currently a patrol sergeant.
“I’m the only (candidate) still working the roads,” he said in a recent interview.
Stahlberg, 49, was born and raised in Flathead County, attended Deer Park Elementary and graduated from Flathead High School. He started his law enforcement career with a short stint with the Columbia Falls Police Department before taking a job with the sheriff’s office. He and his wife have four grown children.
“I see what’s happening in the valley and it scares me,” Stahlberg said. He said he’s worried about the drug problem in the valley. He points to late Sheriff Jim Dupont’s call for an expanded jail 14 years ago.
“He had a vision. He knew what was happening and knew what was coming,” Stahlberg said. “We’ve done a disservice to taxpayers by not planning.”
Stahlberg said the county doesn’t have enough jail space to hold people accountable. In addition, changes in state law have allowed more criminals to be released. For example, a person that’s charged with disorderly conduct on the first offense will not see jail time, even though the victim would often like to see them go to jail.
While he favors expanding county jail space, he note that a proposed jail in Columbia Falls was a “boondoggle” for taxpayers. It would have shifted law enforcement resources to the north. As a result, response time to a call in say, Lakeside, would have taken 45 minutes. He said a jail should be centrally located in the valley.
Stahlberg said the county can’t afford to put an office in the Canyon, but he does want to add two more positions — a patrolman that would even out the shifts and a detective.
Detectives are needed because the number of burglary cases are on the increase because of drugs.
He’d also like to see deputies spend more time in the schools, building relationships with students and staff. He said he recently volunteered to read to young classes at two schools and they’ve already asked him to come back.
It’s a program that could work with little cost to the taxpayers.
He said drug court is an option, but the county also needs a deterrent, i.e. more jail space.
“We’ve got to have consequences for people who don’t follow up on those second chances,” he said.
He’d also like to be able to put prisoners who are able to work, doing things like community service.
“Right now we’ve got a catch and release program and it’s not working for us,” he said. “If that’s what the public wants ... OK, but we need to be honest with them.”
In short, the county needs to invest in public safety.
“You can be fiscally responsible and still spend money,” he said.