Billings Police Chief Rich St. John talked about the range of police work — from the use of deadly force to graffiti prevention — during a “Chat with the Chief” session Thursday at Lewis & Clark Middle School.
“Our officers are forced to react to a rapidly changing situation,” he told 12 residents in attendance in the school’s library. “Tasers have saved countless lives, but you don’t bring a Taser to a gunfight.”
Officers learn to make use-of-force decisions based on the model of a wheel, with the officer positioned in the hub and spokes all around. The spokes represent the tools at the officer’s disposal, St. John said.
One spoke is the mere presence of a uniformed officer. Others include verbal commands; hand techniques; strikes with the fist, knee or foot; pepper spray; baton; Taser; and then deadly force, the 12-year-chief said.
“Based on the situation they face, they grab a tool,” St. John said. “They escalate or de-escalate depending on how it goes. I can start immediately with deadly force, if that’s what the situation requires.”
He said officers spend “a lot of time on their people skills,” and are trained to deal with people with mental illness as well.
“We have a robust training program, and it’s not just firearms,” he said. “If I didn’t have all those tools available, I’d have to go to some sort of force to control the situation. Our training is dynamic and realistic, and it saves lives, both officers and citizens.”
St. John said Billings police officers follow a modified pursuit policy when chasing down suspects.
“We tell them, give it a couple of blocks, and if they don’t pull over, you may not pursue, unless it falls into a narrow definition,” he said in response to a question. That policy differs from those policies employed by the Montana Highway Patrol and the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, who generally patrol more rural streets with few or no intersections, stop signs or traffic signals.
“Nothing good comes from driving 100 miles an hour through Billings,” he said. “Smoking down 24th Street West is dangerous, so we control that. But we’ll get ‘em.”
Two of the department’s four officers who deal solely in traffic enforcement will soon be paired with drug-detecting dogs, he said — for good reason.
“Those officers get more drugs than our drug unit does,” he said, adding, “we’ll see how it goes.”
St. John said he met Thursday with chairs from the city’s neighborhood task forces, announcing that the department is bringing in a graffiti expert to help police and others develop a program to abate graffiti.
“We don’t have a lot of gangs here, but we do have a lot of people who think they are artists,” St. John said. “It is beautiful artwork, but it’s also criminal mischief. We’re going to move aggressively, and we’ve got the city attorney and county attorney on board. Once the weather gets better, you’ll see us really get going.”
Two officers, who will be paid by Billings Clinic, will implement a community policing program at the hospital beginning in June, he said. With a constant shortage of officers in the patrol division, “we cough and sputter” to provide even the two officers that Billings Clinic plans to eventually boost to seven in order to offer round-the-clock policing on the hospital campus.
Another officer in a specialized role, School Resource Officer George Zorzakis, who works at both Lewis & Clark and Riverside middle schools, told a story of how quick thinking can ward off a potentially dangerous situation.
When a principal was called out of the office around lunchtime, a middle school student took the opportunity to barricade himself in the principal’s office, moving furniture around to prevent the officer from entering.
Pressing his face against the only office window, Zorzakis thought to ask the boy a simple question: "Are you hungry?"
Yes, the boy said. “Do you want to go to McDonalds'?” the veteran officer asked the boy. “You’ll really take me there?” the incredulous boy asked. “I will,” the officer replied, thinking to himself, “and I’ll take you in for a psychiatric evaluation after that.”
“We try to have an impact with the (officers) we have,” Zorzakis said. “We are asking our young officers on the street to do more with less. We have all the tools and gadgets — just not the manpower.”