Elders in the Streets Pastors help patrol New Year’s Eve crowds

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Dozens of volunteers as well as several church elders will be out on the streets of Whitefish on New Year’s Eve. They endeavor to be a positive influence as residents and tourists gather to celebrate the start of 2018. A few of the elders who will be taking part are, from left, Steve Miller, associate pastor and Austin Hiatt, assistant pastor, both of Selah Fellowship, John Bent, senior pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, and Larry Lautaret, chaplin and pastor of Flathead Ekklesia. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Law enforcement meets love enforcement when local pastors and police officers join forces to patrol the streets on one of the wildest nights of the year in Whitefish.

New Year’s Eve in 2000, Whitefish Police faced one of the most chaotic nights in the city’s history as the downtown scene turned from a celebration into a near riot, according to Pastor John Bent of Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish.

Officers called for backup from across the valley to help maintain control of the crowd.

Though the police force manages to keep the peace throughout the year, Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said he realized that year that they needed extra help for special occasions that drew in larger, rowdier crowds.

Enter the Elders in the Streets.

Dial pioneered the department’s chaplaincy program in 2001, calling on about five local pastors to help shepherd officers through the stresses of the job and maintain the relationship between the community and the police.

The pastors took their duties a step further in 2002, partnering with police officers to help patrol the crowds on some of the year’s busiest nights, like New Year’s Eve and Halloween.

Whitefish is a resort destination, Bent said. People come to party and have a good time, but sometimes when people have a little too much to drink, things can get out of hand.

Equipped with radios, the pastors roamed through the crowds, providing friendly assistance, keeping the peace when possible and calling for police assistance when warranted.

Over the last 16 years the program has grown to include dozens of volunteers from multiple Whitefish churches who take shifts patrolling the crowds from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., praying over the partiers and helping intoxicated people get home safely

According to Bent, the officers said they saw an immediate difference in the calmness of the crowd when pastors stepped in to help.

“It’s kind of funny,” Dial said. “People can be acting pretty silly, but when they see someone they know is a pastor they kind of stop and re-evaluate.”

This year, Pastor Larry Lautaret, one of the founding members of Elders in the Streets, expects 60-70 volunteers to turn out to help patrol downtown on New Year’s Eve.

People wanting to participate in the program can get involved through Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish and other Whitefish churches.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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