Police Budget

Police cruisers line the parking lot of the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. 

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The recents protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are far from the first time the United States has had a national reckoning with racism and police violence.

The reckoning has come to Montana, too.

Thousands have marched in Bozeman calling for reforms and accountability. Hundreds called and wrote to the city with concerns about local police practices. Activists have outlined how they’d like to see Bozeman be more inclusive and safer for people of color.

Judith Heilman, executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project (MTREP), said the notion that Montana and Bozeman are insulated from racism, bigotry or prejudice is false.

“It’s white people, not melanated people, that always like to tell us melanated folks that it’s not an issue here,” Heilman said. “But they are coming from their own observations and their own lens, and they don’t live life in a brown skin or Black skin and see what happens to us and what we have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Heilman said MTREP often hears from people of color around the state who have had negative encounters with law enforcement that they don’t report.

“They didn’t want to report it to the police because there’s a realistic fear that’s born out across the nation that doing so will put a target on your back,” Heilman said.

In response to local and national protests, Bozeman city commissioners requested a broad review of city and police practices related to racial discrimination, use-of-force, de-escalation and the citizen appeal process. Jeff Mihelich, the city manager, plans to present the results of the review by July 27.

But local activists have asked for more.

Heilman said she’d like to see the city add two members to its police commission, an independent board that oversees the police department, and to include people of color, people of different genders and people of different sexual orientations.

“And I think as a retired law enforcement officer and an expert in racial equity and justice that I ought to be on (the commission), too,” Heilman said.

Other activists called on the Bozeman City Commission to redistribute some of the police department’s $10 million budget to social services that could address the underlying causes of crime, such as support services for homelessness and mental illness.

Commissioners responded to activists’ requests on Monday night by reallocating $61,000 meant for a new police cruiser to citywide anti-discrimination training. The police department will still see an increase in funding that will go to additional staff and new equipment.

Commissioners also directed more money to the Bozeman Help Center, the Human Resource Development Council and Haven, Bozeman’s domestic violence shelter.

The Gallatin County Commission, on the other hand, has no plans to divert money from law enforcement.

“It’s not a case of defunding the police, it’s a case of stepping up and doing some of these things and funding the police,” County Commissioner Joe Skinner said.

The commissioners spent about $8.5 million on law enforcement this year, making it the county’s second largest budget item behind the solid waste district.

The commissioners are now considering next year’s budget. At a June 11 meeting, they decided to fund all new requests from the sheriff’s office with the exception of an additional jail nurse, which they have said they may reconsider later. The new requests total more than $100,000 and include pay raises for deputies, hiring new deputies and purchases of tasers, radios and vehicles.

“I’m happy to fund these requests for two reasons,” Skinner said at the time. “One is in this talk of defunding sheriff’s departments and law enforcement, I think we have an excellent sheriff’s office here. I am proud of them and proud to fund them. … And we have a sheriff who comes and asks for what he needs. … I trust that they don’t ask for the moon.”

In response to calls to defund the police, the Gallatin County Republican Women sent out an email on Sunday evening asking members to tell the county commissioners they support maintaining the current level of law enforcement spending. By Monday afternoon, the commissioners had received dozens of emails in support of law enforcement. They said they haven’t received any defunding requests.

“I don’t think now is the time to start defunding the sheriff,” Skinner said. “We’ve been trying to bring it up to an appropriate level ever since I’ve been a commissioner. It would be a mistake to go backward at this point.”

As Gallatin County has grown, the sheriff’s office has often asked commissioners for money to hire additional deputies and administrative staff. Even with the recent investments in law enforcement, commissioners said there are times when only two deputies are covering the whole county.

To further improve public safety, the commissioners placed a tax increase on the June ballot to help pay for a multimillion-dollar project to upgrade the 911 system. Voters approved the increase 54.4% to 45.6%.

“We are investing in this and in other equipment because we hire deputies and send them to the far reaches of the county by themselves with spotty coverage,” said commissioner Don Seifert. “We need to make sure they have the tools to do their jobs and be safe.”

Beyond calls for changes to funding, activists are calling for reforms within law enforcement agencies.

In response to the local rallies, Sheriff Brian Gootkin, Bozeman Police Chief Steve Crawford and other local law enforcement leaders released a statement condemning the killing of George Floyd and saying they are committed to serving with fairness and transparency. They also said they have robust hiring practices, policies prohibiting racial profiling and require that use-of-force cases be reviewed at multiple levels.

The Montana Law Enforcement Academy, which certifies all peace officers in the state, provides similar training. The academy is overseen by the Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, a governor-appointed group that includes law enforcement and two members of the public.

Even though the state and local law enforcement have these practices and policies, Crawford said there’s room for improvement, like having a more diverse workforce.

Crawford said his department will review its policies using standards and best practices set by peer agencies and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He said it’s too early to say if and what changes could be made.

“What happened in Minneapolis is horrific and legitimately brought about a larger conversation. And I think police departments across the country are looking at policy and looking at training and we’re always wanting to get better,” Crawford said.

Crawford also talked of other ways his department, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and the Belgrade Police Department have modified operations in recent years by having therapists with Western Montana Mental Health Center respond to some calls with law enforcement.

Gallatin County commissioners also pointed to that program as an important investment. They also highlighted the sheriff’s office requirement that all jail officers and deputies have crisis intervention training to help them respond to mental health issues.

“We have been creative about funding for things that are parallel to criminal response,” said county commissioner Scott MacFarlane.

County commissioners said they recognize there is always more they can do and that they always consider all budget requests they receive in order to determine the best use of tax money.

National calls for reform stress the need to increase accountability and transparency by making disciplinary records public.

In Montana, anyone can file a complaint against an officer, said paralegal and investigator Katrina Bolger. The officer’s employer — such as a sheriff’s office or police department — is required by state law to investigate and could take actions such as firing or suspending an officer.

The local office is also required to send its findings to the Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, which would decide whether to open its own investigation, Bolger said.

Council executive director Perry Johnson makes the final determination in each case. If an officer is found to have acted inappropriately, they could face sanctions like having their certification stripped or having to participate in more training. The officer can appeal the decision.

The records tied to the disciplinary proceedings are “generally public,” Bolger said.

The Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council oversees about 5,200 officers, which includes law enforcement, coroners, correctional officers, game wardens and probation and parole officers.

In the last five years, an average of 33 officers were sanctioned per year.

Gallatin County is home to about 280 officers. Between 2014 and 2019, four officers in the county were sanctioned. None of the incidents were related to race, according to the records, but one was related to excessive use of force.

In 2015, sheriff’s deputy Thomas Madsen voluntarily surrendered his certification for a 2011 incident in which he had threatened a handcuffed teen and grabbed her by the neck in an interview room. Madsen also received a two-month deferred sentence in Gallatin County District Court in 2014 for misdemeanor assault as part of a plea agreement.

The national and local calls for police reform aim to stop that type of excessive use of force.

Heilman appreciates the attention police reform has been getting, and she is in touch with both Gootkin and Crawford. She said more trainings could be in the works for local officers.

“I just hope everyone sticks with it,” she said.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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