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'Behind the Badge:' A conversation with a Billings patrol officer about crime and the code of the job

Matthew Bistline.jpg
Posted at 11:54 AM, Feb 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-09 13:54:24-05

BILLINGS – Patrolling the city streets of Billings is no easy task but someone’s gotta do it… at least that’s the sentiment of Billings Police Officer Matthew Bistline.

He’s an open book, willing to answer any question thrown his way when it comes to policing. And if you are brave enough to take a ride in his patrol car on a cold February night, you’ll find the experience eye-opening.

“In the last 18 months, it’s gotten worse,” said Bistline.

That’s a bold statement coming from a cop who spends most of his decade-long career as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

“I would say yes, there is plenty of crime in the city of Billings,” said Bistline.

He’s been on the job in Billings for 18 months, moving to Montana for the simpler things in life: hunting, fishing and Montana's beloved outdoor recreation.

But apart from the crime, his thoughts about Billings are profound considering what he does daily.

“I think Billings is a good place,” he said.

Perhaps it's because Bistline has a positive outlook on life, his community, and policing, talking about how some officers become jaded from the job. For him, that’s not an option.

“You know this job is a dangerous job,” he said. “Just as much as there can be a lot of great people you can have a lot of fun, there are also dangers with this.”


He tries to maintain professionalism, something he talks about quite a bit when asked about how he deals with the public and sometimes those who target police.

Still, the job has its struggles, including staffing.

“It’s a total of nine,” he says when asked about how many officers are on shift at any given time in Billings.

The city is broken up into nine districts and there’s an officer patrolling each one.

But there’s hope. The city has hired 12 new police officers and 14 more community service officers and a new mobile response unitis now handling emergency calls for the fire department.

And a less high-profile agency, Code Enforcement, is adding positions, which city officials say will help nip crime in the bud.

Bistline praises those changes but adds it takes time to get everyone up to speed.

“I think Billings is progressing in the right way,” he said. “Are there things we all can work on? Yes.”

He’s seen the growing pains in his previous job and has been around law enforcement enough to know things take time.

“I am a third-generation cop, So I have kind of grown up around law enforcement,” he said.

Despite some staffing shortages, it’s clear the job still gets done. As he heads out to take calls from dispatch, it becomes a busy night.

Heading first to talk to a resident about a robbery at his home, where some seven firearms were stolen and now subsequently lost on the streets of Billings, to a welfare check at a centrally located apartment complex on one of the coldest nights of the month where the individuals were looked over by EMTs and taken to a warmer location.

But then, Bistline focuses his time on something he likes to call “proactive policing.”

“It could be something as simple as this area has been having a lot of burglaries, so I am going to go drive around that area in my free time,” he said. “All the way up to… I am doing traffic stops and I am enforcing different laws.”

At one point even getting out of the car to make sure someone hanging around a South Side neighborhood, which has seen a recent rise in reported crime, was indeed taking a leisurely walk in the sub-zero temperatures and wind chill.

The individual was detained by Bistline, questioned, and sent on his way, eventually exiting the area still on foot.

And if you ask him about what makes him do the job, you’ll find him pausing intently in thought.

The truth is, he, along with a hundred different officers, could answer that question a hundred different ways but Bistline keeps it simple and meaningful.

“Leave it better than you found it,” he says.

Whether a situation escalates or doesn’t, and whether the department is short-staffed, or Billings is a mecca for crime, Bistline always follows a personal code of policing beliefs.

“That should be the goal every day,” he said. ‘When I go home at night, did I leave the area that I am responsible for better than when I found it? I would say that you could probably talk to any cop, and they would probably tell you something similar."