Eye of the beholder: How fair, how good are Billings police?


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

In this file photo from 2014, Police Officers Matt Lennick, right, and Tony Nichols take a woman into custody in downtown Billings. She was going to be charged with an open-container violation but she became belligerent and was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct.

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John and longtime activist Eran Thompson agree on one thing: Billings needs more cops.

They both see true community policing, which gives cops a chance to interact in a meaningful way with the people they serve, as the best way to close the divisions separating communities and police departments across the country. And good community policing takes more cops on the street than Billings has.

Beyond that fundamental agreement, however, they see things a bit differently.

St. John is convinced that the quality of his officers and the development of strict policies and careful recordkeeping have made the Billings Police Department fair, competent and responsive to community needs.

“The thing I always point out is, we police our own,” he said. “I think the message is loud and clear: we will hold our officers accountable.”

Thompson said he believes St. John is “a very, very good person,” but he also believes that “what’s wrong with the department is what’s wrong with Billings as a whole.” People in Billings react admirably when things go badly, he said, “but we’re terrible at being proactive. I would say the same thing holds true with the police department.”

William Snell, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, which is headquartered in Billings, said something similar about St. John.

“I think we’ve got a really good chief and he’s making every effort, but it takes a lot of work,” he said.

The big success story has been the effort by the department and the city in general to deal with transients and homeless people in the downtown area, Snell said. Having two bike-riding “downtown resource officers,” aided by a Native American addictions counselor, has made a big difference, he said.

“But I think there’s still a lack of trust, and a lot of that comes from people traveling into Billings from the reservations,” Snell said. There are many good officers, he added, but there are some who “need additional training and support.”

Another thing Thompson and St. John agree on is that 2005 marked a turning point for the department. That was the year Montana People’s Action and several other groups issued a report, “To Protect and Serve: Unequal Treatment in the Billings Police Department.”

Thompson remembers the report well because he did a lot of the research and surveying that went into it. He was then a member of Not In Our Town, which formed in response to acts of anti-Semitism and racial hatred in Billings. He is no longer with that group, but he is on the national NIOT board and also serves on the board of the Montana Human Rights Network.

Some of the key findings of that report were that residents of the South Side, compared with people surveyed in the Heights, had mostly negative views of the police department. In the Heights, only 24 percent of those surveyed answered “yes” to the question, “Have you ever felt disrespected, ignored or discriminated against by the Billings Police Department?” On the South Side, 65 percent of respondents answered “yes.”

Chief, sheriff plan public discussion

Police Chief Rich St. John has had many “Chats with the Chief” in recent years, and in light of all the questions about policing that are roiling the country, he wants to schedule a special one soon.

He said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder has agreed to appear with him and to talk about all the issues being discussed nationally, including racial profiling, use of force and law enforcement’s responsiveness to the community.

“Obviously it’s on topic with what’s going on in the nation right now,” St. John said.

He and Linder haven’t settled on a time and place yet, St. John said, but they hope to be able to announce something soon.

Likewise, when asked whether they believed that Billings police officers treated everyone fairly regardless of race, sex and social status, 81 percent of South Side respondents said “no,” compared with just 29 percent in the Heights. Asked to rate the department overall, 12 percent of South Side respondents rated it “good” or “excellent,” compared with 60 percent in the Heights.

Despite some notable progress since then, Thompson said, a similar survey today would probably show that the divide hasn’t narrowed much.

“Poor people, people of color, don’t trust the police department,” he said. In mostly white, more affluent parts of Billings, he said, residents tend to see police officers as being there to help. On the South Side, “everyone is scared and worried” when they see a police car. “And in the end,” he said, “perception is reality.”

Partly in response to that 2005 report, and partly because St. John had just taken over for Chief Ron Tussing, who retired, the department acted on some of the report’s recommendations, particularly in regard to the complaint process and in establishing a community police review board.


Rich St. John

People with complaints about the police used to be required to ask for a complaint form in person, to show an ID and to have their complaint form notarized. Now, complaint forms are available online as well as at the department, 220 N. 27th St., and at the Crime Prevention Center, 2910 Third Ave. N.

Complaints can be faxed or mailed and complainants may file them anonymously. And though knowingly making a false statement against a police officer is illegal, St. John said, he recalled only one instance when a complainant was charged with that crime.

St. John said he is hesitant to pursue such charges because he does not want people to think the department is being vindictive or trying to stifle complaints. What is even more notable about the process is that the department files more complaints about its officers than citizens do, St. John said.

According to the department’s 2015 annual report, 434 complaints were lodged against police officers between 2013 and 2015. Of those, 224 were initiated by citizens and 210 by the department.

Even more significant is that the department initiated 17 Class I complaints in those three years, compared with just seven initiated by citizens. Class I complaints involve more serious allegations, including excessive force, civil rights violations and biased policing.

Class II complaints include things like inadequate service, a lack of courtesy and minor performance issues.

St. John said he established a Citizen Police Advisory Board early in 2007, directly in response to the 2005 report. That board, which had up to 10 members, including residents of the South Side, met monthly for several years, but attendance dwindled, meetings became infrequent and the board was disbanded in 2011.

But many of the duties of that board have been performed by the city’s Human Rights Commission, St. John said. In addition, the department tries to send an officer to every monthly meeting of every neighborhood task force, to give reports and listen to comments and complaints.

One thing the department did not do, contrary to the recommendations of the 2005 report, was establish mandatory training that would help eliminate racial profiling and discrimination.

Intensive diversity training is available periodically, St. John said, and officers are given incentives to take those classes, as well as other non-required training. Thompson said that is not enough.


Eran Thompson

“Don’t put a white guy from Choteau with a half hour of training out on the street to deal with Native Americans and African Americans,” he said. Inadequately trained officers should not be asked to deal with “this tangled mess of issues” we have in this country, he said.

Thompson said what struck him about watching the video of the recent fatal shooting of St. Paul resident Philando Castile was the fear and terror in the voice of the police officer who fired the shots. Thompson said he doesn’t believe that officer was a cold-blooded murderer, but rather a cop who didn’t have the training to deal with “these amazing chasms of misunderstandings between the races.”

Though the BPD does not have mandatory diversity training, the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena does. Academy Administrator Glen Stinar said all students at the academy take a two-hour class in cultural awareness and a two-hour class on racial profiling, out of a total required class load of 480 hours.

In addition, Stinar said, cultural awareness and diversity considerations are touched on in various other classes, including those on ethical decision-making, personal decision-making and investigative interviewing techniques.

Another recommendation in the 2005 report was that the BPD make a concerted effort to hire more minorities. Those numbers remain quite small. Of the 148 sworn officers on duty, only four are Hispanic or African American and none are Native American.

That means minorities make up just 2.7 percent of the force, though minorities made up 10.8 percent of the city population in 2015. St. John said the percentage was closer to 10 percent, but he was counting female officers, too. Even if you add the nine women on the force to the four minorities, the total comes to just 8.7 percent of the officers.

St. John said the department advertises “far and wide” when there are vacancies, and applicants are not identified by name, gender or race during the paper stage of the hiring process.

In any case, St. John said, the department strictly enforces its policies, and one of them prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, sexual preference and other attributes. Officers are also required to give their last name and rank if asked, to be courteous, and to do nothing that would bring discredit to the department.

The department also has a long and detailed policy regarding use of force, and detailed reporting requirements enacted in 2007 make it possible to monitor every single incident involving use of force. All of that information is included in the BPD’s annual report.

In 2015, there were 92 incidents involving use of force. The suspects on whom force was used were white in 62 cases, or 67.4 percent of the time. St. John said that number alone should show that his officers aren’t being unfair, but 2015 census numbers show that white people made up 89.2 percent of the population last year.


William Snell

That number might also include some Hispanics, who aren’t counted separately in the use-of-force reports. At any rate, the next highest number of people whom force was used on were Native Americans. Nineteen of them are listed in the report, meaning Indians were involved in 20.7 percent of the incidents, though they made up only 6.6 percent of the city population.

St. John said that can probably be explained by the high number of “serial inebriates” who congregate downtown, many of whom are Native American and who are frequently involved in altercations with police and others.

Force was used on six black suspects in 2015, or in 6.5 percent of all incidents, even though African Americans made up just 0.6 percent of the total population.

St. John also pointed to records kept on traffic tickets issued by ethnicity and gender in 2015 as evidence that his officers aren’t biased. There again, however, the numbers skew a bit higher for Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics, who are listed separately in those reports.

The department’s figures show that 11,764 tickets were issued last year, and white people received 9,290 of them, or just under 80 percent of the total—though they made up 89.2 percent of the population.

Native Americans were issued 1,387 tickets, 11.7 percent of the total, African Americans were issued 315, or 2.6 percent of the total, and Hispanics were issued 565, or 4.8 percent of the total. Census figures said 3.6 percent of the Billings population identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2015.

Those numbers on Native Americans go back to what Snell said about Indians with license plates from reservation counties being wary of visiting Billings. But Snell also sympathized with the police.

He said he has served as a police officer in Harlem, on the Fort Belknap Reservation where he was born; in Wounded Knee, S.D.; and on a special detail monitoring land disputes between the Hopi and Navajo tribes.

Those experiences taught him that “when you have strangers come into town, you tend to watch them. That’s what we do. Some of it is kind of a natural human thing that is internal to us as human beings. But you have to make sure it doesn’t become a racial thing.”

St. John said the fact that his department now records everything in publicly accessible reports shows that it is trying to get out of “the good-old-boy syndrome of sweeping stuff under the rug.”

This spring, the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union made extensive Freedom of Information Act requests to every law enforcement agency in the state, asking, among other things, for complete records on use of force incidents and racial profiling. Because the BPD regularly compiles such records, St. John said, he has already given all the requested information to the city attorney’s office.

That information has not yet been given to the ACLU, according to the organization’s staff attorney, Jim Taylor. Only a few agencies statewide have submitted all the requested information, Taylor said, but eventually the ACLU will issue a report based on those findings.

One more thing St. John mentioned is that the BPD’s Office of Professional Standards, which investigates every complaint lodged against police officers, is headed by a captain, Kevin Iffland, who devotes all his time to that task.

The department is always striving to be as good as it can be, St. John said, but when it comes to building trust and relationships, “training is nice, but there’s no substitute for getting the officers out in the community.”

And with just nine officers on duty on a typical shift, it’s difficult to do anything but race from call to call. During the failed public safety mill level campaign of 2014, St. John said, his “battle cry” was, “What is it you don’t want me to do?”

He asks the same question today. Without more resources, he said, the goal of real community policing will remain elusive.

Thompson sympathizes with St. John in that regard.

“I wouldn’t be a burnt-out activist if I had the answer,” he said. “It takes a deep breath, an acknowledgement our common humanity. I’m a student of Dr. King. Dr. King talks about agape, love. Not soap-opera love, but love of mankind. That’s how we fix it.”

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