Thursday, July 18, 2024

Kalispell Police officer Carlee Brown recognized as Officer of the Year

Daily Inter Lake | May 6, 2024 12:00 AM

Growing up in Columbia Falls, Carlee Brown planned to follow in her game warden father’s footsteps.

Not that the now Kalispell Police officer wasn’t already following in his actual footsteps, regularly tagging along while he patrolled the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“He was well known in the community, he was a fair and respected man, and I liked that … that he earned that respect in the community,” Brown recalled. “He was enforcing the laws and protecting the wildlife.”

She was well on her way to joining him after graduating from Columbia Falls High School in 2015, pursuing degrees in criminal justice and biology from Montana State University-Northern following a stint at Flathead Valley Community College. 

But taking a job as a dispatcher for the Havre Police Department put a spin on her plans. 

“Dispatching is where I learned I wanted to help people,” Brown said. 

Brown, recognized in April by the Kalispell Lions Club as the 2024 Officer of the Year, decided to become a police officer. Not that it didn’t come without challenges. 

“It was stressful at first,” she admitted while thinking back to her time as a dispatcher, but said that she took to it quickly, particularly the problem-solving parts of the work. 

Graduating from MSU-Northern in 2019 — her father retired about the same time — she conquered her reservations and landed a job on the police force in Moscow, Idaho, a place where she knew no one and had never visited. That’s where she went through the police academy and worked alongside a field training officer. 

But she always knew she was coming back to the Flathead. 

“I’m pretty proud I stuck it out for so long in Idaho,” said Brown, thinking about her parents, older brother and twin brother living in the valley. “But there was still a little piece that was missing.”

Brown took a look at the police departments in Columbia Falls and Whitefish as well as the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office before homing in on the Kalispell Police Department. She saw similarities to the department in Moscow, though Kalispell welcomed an annual influx of tourists that Moscow was spared. 

“The [number of] calls for service was probably more than Moscow, but I like to stay busy,” she said, flashing a grin on a recent Tuesday morning in Kalispell’s public safety building. A few minutes later she paused to listen in on radio traffic, waiting intently to see if a call required her presence. 

She also recalled being struck by how friendly everyone at the Kalispell Police Department was in talking with her. And her mother had given her a nudge in the form of a Daily Inter Lake profile of Kalispell Police officer Tara Oster when the Lions Club named her Officer of the Year in 2020

It seemed like a good fit, Brown said, and she headed home in 2021. 

IF THE yearly influx of tourists was one difference Brown noticed between here and Moscow, the other was Montana’s perennial struggle with drunk driving. Earlier this month, Forbes ranked Montana as the worst state for drunk driving in the nation with about 43.51% of traffic fatalities incurred by intoxicated motorists. 

Forbes drew on statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and took a five-year average using data from 2017 to 2021.

“In Montana, it’s definitely a problem,” said Brown, who has responded to traffic fatalities here and in Idaho. 

“All of them are super unfortunate,” she said. “They’re heartbreaking. They’re tragic for everyone involved.”

While the department responds to “every kind of violent crime you can think of,” the violent domestic disturbance calls are among the most “emotionally-driven,” Brown said. 

“We have to make the right decision,” she said. 

Although the department puts out four-person teams of officers, they ride in separate vehicles. Showing up at a disturbance call, Brown might be the only officer on scene to start. 

“Every situation is a little bit different,” she said. “It’s important to be calm and take in all of that information and make a rapid decision.”

There are two aspects of the job that she enjoys above all, though she admits they are wildly disparate: working with kids and getting fentanyl off the streets. 

“Being able to talk to those kiddos and seeing their eyes light up, you feel like you could really have made a difference,” Brown said, tucking her thumbs into the shoulders of her tactical vest and swiveling enthusiastically in her desk chair. 

As for drugs, she has watched fentanyl rise as the predominant narcotic in the region. She’s happy to seize it when it pops up during traffic stops, tips from residents or on overdose calls. 

“We run into drugs all the time … we see it everywhere,” Brown said. “It seems to go hand-in-hand with other criminal activity.”

SIDELINED AFTER tearing her ACL while riding a dirtbike earlier this year, Brown ended up on light duty and working with the department’s detectives. That helped her map out a possible future career move. 

“I would like to apply for detective when it opens up next,” she said. 

In the meantime, she’s enjoying the recognition bestowed upon her by the Lions Club. 

“I was absolutely honored that they chose me,” Brown said. “We have some pretty awesome officers so the fact that they chose me — I’m honored.”

Both her mother and grandmother were overjoyed, Brown said, with her grandmother, who lives in Libby, arranging to have flowers delivered to mark the occasion. 

She knows they worry about her “all the time,” but both are proud of her accomplishment.

Back at the department, she also works as a coordinator for the agency’s wellness program for her fellow officers. And Brown has a front row seat to the region’s growing pains. 

“It’s grown quite a bit,” she said. “We’re seeing the challenges of a growing city.”

The department would struggle more with those challenges were it not for the support of the city’s residents, she said, referencing the recent vote in favor of a dedicated public safety levy as one example of the community’s backing. 

Officers undergo a multitude of training and specialized professional development programs to prepare for the job’s travails, she said. They can fall back on that training, but the support from fellow officers, family and the community is critical.

“That’s where we’re so lucky to have this community,” Brown said. “All of us are passionate about making this community better.”

News Editor Derrick Perkins can be reached at 758-4430 or