MTPR

New St. Ignatius Police Chief Says He's Here To Stay

Aug 11, 2015

The position of Chief of Police in St. Ignatius is a revolving door of officers who never stay in town for long.

Down the road from the police station at the Old Timer’s Café, St. Ignatius mayor Charles Gariepy sits at the end of the counter. He’s wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, a camo Lynyrd Skynyrd hat, and drinking a large glass of iced tea.

Gariepy says his town is too small to attract cops who want a career in law enforcement.

"Its kind of been this, we send them to school and they work for a little while, and then they find something for better pay and they just leave. That’s how it's been for a quite a while here."

St. Ignatius is a place where people try to make a living, with no illusions that it’s a place to make a fortune.

In the 12 years Gariepy has been mayor or on city council here, he’s seen over a dozen people come and go as the St. Ignatius Police Chief.

So many cops come through this town that people have a hard time remembering all their names.

Jim and Julie Burckhard own the Old Timer’s Café.
 
"What’s the dude’s name now?" Jim asks.

"Matt," Julie replies.

“Matt seems to have come here, he’s already trained. He likes it here," Jim says. "Me as a businessman, he’s been in here and he’s friendly. I really feel like he came here with an interest in the town and not just the job."

They're talking about Matt Connelly, who is from Browning, and stepped in as the Chief of Police in May.

On a patrol drive through town, Connelly said he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement when he was 16. He was resisting arrest and got punched in the face by a cop.

"So come health class day, it was career day, and we were all joking around about what we wanted to be and the teacher asked me, 'What do you want to be Matthew?'

And I said, 'well I want to be a cop.'

'Why is that?' I said,' you can’t beat them, might as well join them.'"

He got his start with the Blackfeet Tribal Police drug unit and attended the Indian Police Academy in New Mexico.

Connelly moved on to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and spent time in Washington, and North and South Dakota.

"I just got tired of the - always on the road," Connelly says. "I worked six or seven 12-hour shifts, and I was never, ever home. My wife was like, 'you need to find something else. We need you home.'"

He moved back to Glacier County to work for the sheriff’s department, doing a lot of coroner calls.

"That’s what kind of got to me, the coroner calls. It just started bugging me after a time."

When Connelly got laid off from the Blackfeet Tribe last August, the department told him his position ran out of funding.

His wife and kids were living in Pablo when he got the news that he was out of a job.

So, becoming St. Ignatius’ Police Chief gave Connelly the opportunity to work closer to his family. And that’s important to a man who’s spent a decade on the road, working with drug units and making morgue visits. He says he likes the pace of life here, and the move to a small town was worth what St. Ignatius could afford to pay him.

"The way I look at it, it’s a job. I’m not here to be rich," Connelly says. "I never, ever thought I would be rich being a cop. If I wanted to be rich I would have stayed in the family business and raised cows. That’s where the money is at. I like doing what I do. It’s a fulfilling job."

There are only about 900 people in St. Ignatius, and not all of them pay taxes that support law enforcement salaries because a lot of tribal members live in the town.

"It’s a small town and they don’t have a lot of tax revenue I don't think. And I’m sure they have to deal with other stuff such as roads, water, sewer. Winter time, I’m sure they’re running their snow plows constantly and stuff like that…."

Ideally, Connelly would like to have eight cops in town, more than enough to give St. Ignatius 24-hour protection.

Right now, there are only two full time positions in the police department.

Mayor Gariepy says the community wants more police, but enticing cops to the area with higher pay isn’t likely.

"Just talking to the public you can tell when it’s not going to fly. I mean they just don’t want to spend the money," Gariepy says.

Inside the Old Timer Café, the breakfast is cheap and good, and served with jam and a side of ketchup. Everyone who walks in acts like they’ve entered an extension of their own home.

St. Ignatius is a place where people wonder who that new face in town is, and take pride in the idea that home is something you don’t often move away from.

"Oh yeah, we’ve tried everything we can - and part of it is the people in the community. Now, Matt is fitting in really well and people really like him, and I’m praying to God that he is here for quite a while. He seems to be doing a really good job," Mayor Gariepy says.

"There are others that either the community doesn’t think they're friendly enough, or they did something and they pretty much push until they leave, it's different reasons.”

Gariepy says the only complaints he’s received about Connelly are from people who didn’t like being arrested.

Connelly is still looking for a house for his family in the area. They’re looking to buy a home, not rent.

Mayor Gariepy likes the sound of that. He’s optimistic that Connelly is here to stay. But he’s been told that before -- right before the town lost their police chief to a bigger city with better pay.