BILLINGS - Topz Sandwich company and Performance Engineering teamed up to offer all law enforcement employees a free lunch on Wednesday to show their appreciation.
The event, dubbed "Copz at Topz," comes at the end of a challenging year for law enforcement in the Billings area.
Billings police Sgt. Jeff Stovall was among the many officers who stopped by one of the Topz locations in town to pick up his lunch and he discussed just how appreciative he and his team were.
"We're 365 days, seven days a week," Stovall said. "We don't really get a breath of fresh air and we're taxed at the end of the day. Stuff like this, it warms our heart. It's one of those things that motivates us to keep going every day."
According to numbers released by the Billings Polie Department, there were 12 homicides in 2023, which is the same number as in 2022. However, many of those crimes in the past year involved teenagers, with the youngest victim being one-year-old Tatee'k Morrison who was killed after his father was shot and fell on top of him.
Morrison's death was at the end of October, amidst a 15-day span in which Billings had six shootings resulting in five homicides.
"It takes a huge toll on us because a lot of us are parents and then it brings it back home for you," Stovall said. "Some of that stuff, we take it home. We're human beings and that's the balance we have to learn as police officers."
While those high-profile violent crimes are tough on officers, some violent crimes were down in 2023. Assaults with a weapon dropped from 340 incidents in 2022 to 268 this year. Stovall said he's proud of the progress the city officers have made and every day brings its own challenges.
"You can go to a fatal car crash, and then turn around and be having to deal with someone who’s having a suicide crisis," Stovall said. "Then someone who’s dealing with domestic violence. Just a big toll it has on us mentally."
And that's why Performance Engineering employee and Billings City Councilman Scott Aspenlieder came up with the idea to show the community's appreciation.
"With everything that's gone on this past year, it just felt like a great opportunity to show how grateful we are for their hard work," Aspenlieder said. "It's just a small, small fraction of what we should be doing to try and support our law enforcement community."
Aspenlieder was joined by Topz owner Tucker Veltkamp to organize the event. Veltkamp said as soon as he heard the idea he jumped at the chance to be a part of it.
"They do a very hard job and it can be a thankless job," Veltkamp said. "We appreciate them, man. They're amazing. We want to send out vibes that let them know, 'We're behind you and we support you.'"
Aspenlieder said he didn't know how much the day would end up costing, but that he hoped it would be a high number. The event was opened up to all agencies, including Billings officers, Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office deputies, Montana Highway Patrol troopers, and Montana State University Billings campus officers as well.
"We just want to show them that we support them and have their backs," Aspenlieder said. "As a father, it's been a tough year of crime when kids are involved and I can't imagine how it is for them."
Veltkamp said he couldn't agree more and both said they hope other businesses fall in line with similar events showing their support.
"You can talk about all the problems going on, or you can try to be a part of the solution," Veltkamp said. "I think this is a step in the right direction towards helping this stuff."
A small gesture that Stovall said goes a long way.
"You don't get into law enforcement than for any other reason than you want to change your community and leave it better than you found it," Stovall said. "So that's where our hearts are at and it's felt in this thank you from the community today."