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Government & Politics

Police Departments In Montana Respond To Calls For Reform

George Floyd Billings.jpg
Nicky Ouellet
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
Protesters laid down to honor George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died in police custody, at a Black Lives Matter rally in Billings, Montana on June 7, 2020.

Residents in some of Montana's larger cities are calling for police departments to revise use of force policy and bolster social services in the wake of several high profile instances of police violence against people of color.

Some departments say they’re already doing much of what’s being called for but they’re open to change.

On June 7, more than a thousand people marched through Billings, Montana’s biggest city, to raise awareness about racially charged police violence in the United States.

Billings march organizer Amber Palmer is one of the people calling for change. She says she’d like to see the Billings Police Department hire more social workers who could accompany officers on routine calls and talk to people who struggle with addiction or other mental health issues.

“If you have somebody who’s trained in those situations, who knows what’s going on, I think that it would cut down on police violence dramatically,” Palmer said.

Protesters in other cities across Montana, including Helena, Bozeman and Missoula, took to the streets in the weeks following the death of a Minneapolis Black man, George Floyd, after a police officer knelt on his neck.

Some Montana police departments are taking notice of the call for change. Many law enforcement administrators say their training and policies are geared towards preventing unnecessary violence.

“A lot of those requests that are coming out for the law enforcement reform, we already have them in policy and we’ve had them in policy for a long time,” Wooley said.

Brandon Wooley works for the Billings Police Department. The city is responsible for about a third of Montana’s 30 some officer involved shooting deaths since 2015, according to data collected by the Washington Post. Court jury decisions between 2015 and 2019 declared the Billings shooting deaths justified.

Wooley points to the high rate of methamphetamine seizures and meth related violence in Billings.

“You gotta look at other stuff, you gotta look at social conditions, you gotta look at the social problems that that community is facing as well,” Wooley said.

Wooley is in charge of updating policy, which he says the department does on a regular basis.

Billings’ police policy includes an eleven page document for use of force measures. In that document, a diagram visualizes how an officer might progress through less deadly force techniques onto deadly force. Wooley says the first step includes presence, like showing up, and then progresses to verbal commands.

“It really comes down to compliance, right? If they’re not listening to orders, they’re not listening to directions, then that officer may have to, at the end of the day, if they’re going to make an arrest, they have to put their hands on somebody to put handcuffs on. Right? So, there’s got to be some type of contact,” Wooley said.

If a suspect fails to comply and lashes out, the threat response may continue to less lethal options like distraction blows, holds, batons, pepper spray and tasers. If an officer or someone else is in danger, the officer may then turn to deadly force like a gun.

Some activists want police departments to reconsider what kind of force their policies allow. At a June rally in Missoula, speaker Ja’Ton Simpson talked about the systematic changes he’s noticed nationwide following increased public focus on police violence.

“There are now bans being put across America on choke holds. Officers who are abusing their privilege are being held accountable,” Simpson said.

Police departments in Billings, Bozeman, Glendive, Miles City and Sidney say their policies neither forbid nor permit neck restraints specifically, and the Montana Law Enforcement Academy teaches a modified form of restraint that causes fainting by applying pressure to one side of the neck.

One rural Montana police chief says he’s heard a compelling case for categorizing an unconscious neck restraint as deadly force.

Mark Kraft is the new Chief of Police in Sidney, a town near the border between Montana and North Dakota with a population of around 6,000 people. Kraft says while he hasn’t heard pointed critique about neck restraints from his community, he recently participated in a webinar about the hazards of neck restraints that cause fainting.

“Kind of allowing the science to direct policy,” Kraft said.

Kraft says the webinar took a forensic medical standpoint. It went into the possible deadly consequences of the unconscious neck restraint, which he said he learned can lead to a rupture of plaque within blood vessels and stroke.

Recent calls for reform across the state have driven other communities to consider policy and departmental change.

In Bozeman, the police department submitted a report on its policies to the City Commission. In Billings, march organizer Amber Palmer says she and other organizers formed a roundtable called Walk With Me, where community leaders including Billings law enforcement talk about room for improvement in the local police force.