RED LODGE—About 40 people crowded into the small City Council chambers in Red Lodge Tuesday night, most of them to speak or listen to others speak about the recent drug bust that city police officers carried out in Bearcreek.
Ten people ended up speaking, some of them quite passionately, half of them defending the police and city officials, half calling for more transparency and for answers to questions raised by the drug raid.
Judging from the frequent bursts of applause, the city’s defenders were slightly outnumbered by those with concerns about the recent incident and with concerns about law enforcement practices in general.
The debate has been raging since last week, when it was revealed that Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon had sent a letter to Red Lodge Mayor Ed Williams, accusing the Police Department of possibly engaging in misrepresentation in obtaining a search warrant for the raid, and calling the raid a botched operation that left the city open to serious liability.
On Friday, a Bearcreek resident who lived in a separate house behind the one named in the warrant filed a civil suit against the city, asking for at least $1 million in damages for being unlawfully arrested, detained against her will and injured as she was being led in handcuffs to a patrol car.
There was another wrinkle in the case on Monday, when Bearcreek Mayor Jim Moore sent a letter to Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, in which he repeated many of the allegations made by Nixon and asked Fox to intervene in the case.
Moore told the attorney general that he was asked to write the letter by the Bearcreek town council. He said Bearcreek is an incorporated town that does not have its own police department but has an agreement with the Carbon County sheriff’s office, which provides law enforcement services there.
In the raid, Moore said, “Red Lodge police came into our community in the middle of the night, executed a felony search warrant on a house and arrested its two occupants.”
“The police also entered an adjacent home without a warrant,” the letter continued, and “held a young lady who lived there at gunpoint, on her knees in her kitchen, then handcuffed her and removed her to a patrol car. While being taken to a patrol car, she slipped on ice and was injured.”
Moore said in the letter that neither the sheriff nor county attorney was informed of the raid in advance, “and our town council certainly did not enter into any agreement to allow them to operate here.”
Moore asked Fox to determine whether the RLPD had jurisdiction to enter the town and whether the police officers involved in the raid violated any laws in the raid. He also asked Fox: “What assurances do our 70-some residents have that they won’t be subjected to similar treatment in the future?”
The case also generated an outpouring of comments on the Red Lodge Debate Facebook page, which apparently is also the forum on which it was first suggested that people with questions about the raid show up at the council meeting in force.
One of those leading that effort, Diane Dimich, spoke first Tuesday night, saying that her attempts to find out the truth left her open to personal attacks by members of “the mayor’s inner circle.” She said she has been accused of being “a cop hater, a liar and a troublemaker.”
Dimich said the “narrative coming out of City Hall is that Red Lodge is a dangerous place,” and she accused the mayor and Police Chief Steve Hibler of imposing an unnecessarily heavy police presence on the resort community. And like others that would speak, she asked for more information.
“We need to know the whole story of what led up to the Bearcreek incident,” she said.
However, before the hearing began, the private attorney from Billings who is representing the city in the lawsuit filed by the woman in Bearcreek warned the mayor and council members not to be tempted to comment Tuesday night.
“Please don’t discuss any of these matters involving Bearcreek in public,” Sam Painter said. “…I can’t tell you not to listen, but I can tell you, please, don’t comment.”
Painter also assured the City Council that the “substantial allegations” in the lawsuit “are absolutely going to be refuted.”
After Dimich spoke, Warene Wall went to the lectern and told the mayor and other city officials that “the greater population of Red Lodge appreciates what you do,” despite the “small but noisy minority of people in Red Lodge who spend on an inordinate amount of time on the Internet.”
That was an apparent reference to the Red Lodge Debate Facebook page, as was Wall’s comment that “I, for one, am tired of the nasty rhetoric.”
Chris Ferguson complained of an overbearing police presence and a profusion of unmarked police cars, bulletproof vests and drug dogs, which he said had intimidated both residents and visitors.
Leslie Bachmann, though, said Red Lodge has changed dramatically over the years, and “these times are not those times anymore.” She said the city now has the most professional mayor and police chief it has ever had.
Catherine Simon said one recent Wednesday afternoon she saw three unmarked police cars in a short period downtown. Red Lodge seems to have far more police officers per capita than other cities in Montana, she said, which makes her “very upset … very discouraged.”
The last to speak was Charity Stevens, an EMT and the residential coordinator for group homes in Red Lodge. She said that in her experience as an EMT, Red Lodge police officers are unfailingly polite and professional.
She specifically commended Officer Greg Srock, the police officer who applied for the Bearcreek search warrant and who was subsequently removed from the roster of sheriff’s reserve deputies by Sheriff Josh McQuillan.
McQuillan was at the hearing Tuesday, as was Police Chief Hibler and County Attorney Nixon, but none of them spoke.
Correction: In the original version of this story, we said Catherine Simon “identified herself as a business owner.” She did not.