In the wake of Yellowstone County’s fifth officer-involved shooting since the beginning of 2013, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John discussed the department’s internal review process for officer-involved shootings, the procedure for how officers engage suspects and the use of deadly force.
In the most recent shooting, Officer Grant Morrison shot and killed 38-year-old Richard Ramirez, who was later found to be unarmed, during a traffic stop at about 11 p.m. Monday, police said. Morrison is on paid administrative leave and the shooting is under investigation by the department.
There were nearly as many fatal officer-involved shootings in Yellowstone County in 2013 as the previous eight years combined. Dating back to 2005, the county saw six such incidents while there were four in a span of just seven months in 2013.
In each of those cases, which involved officers from both the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and the Billings Police Department, a coroner’s jury found that the shootings were justified and in no way criminal.
Procedure for traffic stop enforcement
The chief released Friday a portion the Billings Police Department’s policy manual dealing with traffic law enforcement, which includes procedure for stops such as the one that ended with the death of Ramirez.
The portion of the department’s procedure dealing with officer safety was redacted. St. John said this portion was redacted because it outlines preferred police tactics used in traffic stops and revealing those tactics could endanger officers.
St. John confirmed the redacted portion of the procedure includes that it is preferred to have multiple officers respond to high-risk stops or stops involving a known felon.
“Is it preferable to have multiple people when you’re dealing with (an armed suspect)? Absolutely, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” St. John said.
An unredacted copy of the manual from 2006 also indicates that it is preferred to have multiple officers respond to high-risk traffic stops, such as one involving a known felon, and that if a suspect doesn’t comply with commands that officers should remain in covered positions until a supervisor arrives.
The chief stressed that procedure is not set in stone, and that officers may deviate from procedure if they can justify why they did so. He also said that officers make the decision whether to approach suspects alone almost on a daily basis.
Billings Police Lt. Kevin Iffland, who is responsible for maintaining the department’s policy manual, said the decision to approach an armed or potentially armed suspect is largely left up to individual officers.
“We leave that discretion with the officer most of the time because if I’ve got a guy walking with a gun through South Park towards a bunch of kids and I’m the officer on scene, do I want a policy restricting him, making him stay in his car and do nothing?” Iffland said.
The department’s policy manual is broken into rules, policies and procedures. Rules are set in stone and cannot be deviated from; policies are more general and state philosophies of management. Procedures are an outline of how to perform a task in a way that meets the philosophy of a given policy.
Whether an officer followed procedure in an officer-involved shooting, or justifiably broke from procedure, is always investigated by the department, St. John said.
Review process for officer-involved shootings
When an officer is involved in a shooting, the incident goes through multiples steps of investigation and review within the department and will ultimately be heard by a coroner’s jury to determine if the shooting was justified.
After an officer-involved shooting, the department begins parallel criminal and administrative investigations of the incident, according to the department’s policy manual. Investigations division detectives treat the case as they would any other homicide, collecting and analyzing evidence and interviewing witnesses and the officers involved.
At the same time, an administrative investigation is done to see if the officer followed policy and procedure.
After those investigations are complete, the shooting goes before a use-of-deadly-force review committee.
That committee is made up of five people designated by the chief.
If an officer is found to have acted incorrectly, that officer could face discipline up to and including termination, St. John said. The review panel may also may make recommendations for policy changes or additional training.
The officer-involved shooting will also go to a coroner’s inquest, which is presided over by a coroner from another county. In the inquest, which is in many ways similar to a trial, a jury of seven people gets to decide if the officer committed justifiable homicide and if there was any criminal action. The county attorney’s office presents the case. There is no defending party in the proceeding.
“So, you’ve got three internal reviews and then ultimately the coroner’s inquest,” he said. “(This is) thoroughly vetted by the time this thing’s over and done with.”
St. John said the results of these investigations and the review committee’s report on Morrison’s shooting of Ramirez will be made public.
Use of deadly force
St. John said the department is bound by the same federal and state use-of-force laws as private citizens.
Montana law says use of force is justified when a person “reasonably believes” it is necessary for self-defense or to defend another person from imminent illegal use of force.
The same section of law goes on to say a person is “justified in the use of force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm only if the person reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm.” The law states this force may be used in self-defense, to defend another person or to prevent a forcible felony.
“It applies the same whether it’s citizen versus citizen or officer versus citizen,” St. John said. “That’s the law and … those overarching things are what guide our policies, procedures and practices.
Iffland said that people have asked why officers involved in shootings didn’t simply shoot the suspect in, for example, the leg.
“What our officers are trained to do is shoot until the threat has stopped, OK? If that’s one time, 10 times, 100 times, whatever,” Iffland said as he and St. John discussed the matter in the chief’s office. “Our officers are just trained to shoot center of mass and then shoot until that threat has stopped.”
St. John then explained that a number of factors — including the influence of the Bakken, an influx of high-purity methamphetamine and a segment of the population that uses drugs and alcohol in combination with weapons and has a complete disdain for law enforcement — have led to an increasing number of violent confrontations between suspects and police.
“Until we can really get a handle on ‘something,’ and what the ‘something’ is I don’t know, you’re probably going to see more of these," he said. "That’s what we do, you’re paying us to go out and chase these bad guys and get them arrested. Well, they don’t want to be arrested. They don’t like authority, they got drugs on board and they’re armed and so these situations, unfortunately, you’ll probably see more in the future.”