Bozeman City Hall File

A visitor approaches Bozeman City Hall on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

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As Bozeman makes progress toward its inclusivity and equity goals, some local activists are concerned there has not been enough opportunities for public involvement.

Bozeman city manager Jeff Mihelich presented the first quarterly report of the city’s inclusivity initiative to the city commission last week, which highlighted progress on the 24 actions laid out in a review from this summer. Those included changes to the Bozeman Police Department’s anti-bias and use-of-force policies. When the first report was presented to the city commission in July, several residents and local activists criticized the city for not consulting more people who are Black, Indigenous and people of color when putting together the report.

Similar concerns on the quarterly report were echoed by several people this week.

Emma Bode, who works with civic engagement group Forward Montana, said on the outside, it seems the city is moving with urgency on its equity goals.

That’s a good thing, Bode said, but raises its own problems.

“The city is moving pretty quickly on this report and taking actions on the findings from it, which of course is great because equity needed to happen yesterday,” Bode said. “I’m also worried by moving this quickly they’re not really getting to the problem and are kind of limiting the opportunities for citizens to engage.”

Bode said she would like the city to prioritize an outside review of their policies and staff-wide anti-bias training. Mihelich said during last week’s meeting that they are working on establishing citywide training programs and are also hiring a consultant to help conduct a “gaps analysis” to get data on where and how inequities exist in Bozeman.

The city also was accepted into the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which Mihelich said will give it access to insight from other cities that are working on equity issues. The quarterly report also lays out future actions, like reviewing the city’s hiring practices and putting together an analysis of the makeup of the city’s advisory boards.

“When we’re talking about an inclusive city, this isn’t something that starts and stops,” Mihelich said. “It’s actually an initiative that really needs to be ongoing. If we truly are going to be an inclusive Bozeman, then this is work that we can never take our eye off of.”

Judith Heilman, executive director of Bozeman-based Montana Racial Equity Project, echoed the importance of an external review on equity and inclusion matters.

“A biased institution cannot review its own bias,” Heilman said.

Heilman said her organization was not consulted about the first quarterly report. Justice Geddes, a representative of Bozeman United for Racial Justice, said the city did not reach out to their organization on the quarterly report either.

Mihelich said the city’s first step was to look at their current work. The gaps analysis is next, which Mihelich said will include working with organizations like Montana Racial Equity Project and Bozeman United for Racial Justice that are doing equity and inclusion work in Bozeman.

The analysis will involve collecting data and experiences from people about how “race, ethnicity, and identity affect people’s ability to thrive in Bozeman,” Mihelich said. The analysis will be used to form equity indicators, Mihelich said, which will be used to monitor progress in addressing equity-related issues.

The analysis will inform an equity and inclusion plan in the future, Mihelich said. Hearing from those “currently marginalized, isolated and feeling disenfranchised” will be key to the initiative’s success, Mihelich said.

Heilman said the city should prioritize finding a consultant or firm led or staffed by people who are Black, Indigenous or are people of color.

“There’s so many things that just make common sense to us that somebody non-melanated probably wouldn’t even think of, or who would have a different viewpoint of, because they’re not able to walk in our shoes,” Heilman said.

The report also addressed recent changes the Bozeman Police Department made to its use of force and anti-bias policies. Jim Veltkamp, the department’s interim chief, said last week the policies were largely adjusted to bring them in line with nationally recognized best practices.

Among the policies that were changed was the department’s use-of-force policy. Veltkamp said the rewrite didn’t change much in terms of their practices, but clarified things and added language on items that were previously unaddressed.

The new policy prohibits “vascular neck restraints” and chokeholds “unless deadly force is authorized.” Velktamp said chokeholds were not addressed at all in the previous policy, though they were never taught, practiced or authorized by the department.

“The fact that it didn’t say in our policy ‘no chokeholds or strangleholds’ can be seen as concerning to someone who reads the policy,” Veltkamp said. “So even though it didn’t change our practice, because we weren’t doing those before, we put that in there to make it more readable and understandable.”

The city also updated the department’s racial profiling policy to align with the national model bias-free policing policy, which Veltkamp said prohibits officers from taking action based solely on a person’s characteristics, including their race.

Officers received implicit bias training, Veltkamp said, and training for the new policies is being scheduled. The policy rewrites were done internally, Veltkamp said.

Heilman, who was a police officer for over a decade, said law enforcement changing their policies “from a strictly law enforcement lens” is often fine, but more public involvement is needed.

“In this day and age, I think it would be nice to get some community input, at least talk to citizens about it,” said Heilman, suggesting a forum. “It’s likely to have some heat behind it, but you know people are passionate about how they feel about law enforcement.”

Veltkamp agreed with Heilman’s point that there is room for more engagement, saying he would want to have more open conversations or listening sessions on use of force and other police policy issues.

“More open communication can improve a lot of this,” Veltkamp said.

The department is also retooling how it handles complaints and acquiring body cameras for Bozeman police officers.

Veltkamp said funding for cameras is in the department’s budget requests for the coming year. Getting cameras on officers will depend on whether the department gets the money, how quickly it can purchase the equipment and get them set up.

Veltkamp said the department would also talk to the public about what body cameras would mean.

Geddes, with Bozeman United for Racial Justice, criticized the policy changes for not including enough firm language when it comes to guidelines directing officers to intervene if they see a colleague misbehaving.

The policy states officers “have a duty to intervene” when another officer is using excessive force “when it is safe and reasonable to do so.” It also states agency personnel “are encouraged to intervene” in an incident of biased policing “where appropriate.”

Geddes also raised concerns with the effectiveness of body cameras, saying it could be more about appearances than actual accountability.

“That’s what this whole process has been, the police department trying to pat itself on the back by taking these tiny little steps that aren’t even really steps. They’re walking in place pretending they’re moving in a direction that is going to be safer and more positive for our community,” Geddes said.

This comes as the city is beginning to look for a new police chief after former chief Steve Crawford left the department in September. During a public meeting Wednesday, several people emphasized they would like to see a police chief who can handle the negative impacts of a rapidly growing city and who understands the issue of racial bias in policing.

Geddes said the new chief could help “heal some of the damage that’s been done from our police department,” but is doubtful a new chief could change the ideology of the department.

“I don’t think that one person changing in a police department is going to massively change toxic culture,” Geddes said.

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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