Gallatin County sheriff to evaluate West Yellowstone police training, investigations

2014-03-22T00:00:00Z 2014-07-07T09:15:04Z Gallatin County sheriff to evaluate West Yellowstone police training, investigationsBy CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said his department will be evaluating the West Yellowstone Police Department’s training and investigations programs after months of concerns about operations within the small department.

“There is concern with the whole process,” Gootkin said Thursday.

The sheriff conveyed his concerns to town officials during a meeting Wednesday in West Yellowstone with the police chief, town manager and town attorney.

“We had a really good meeting. At the end, we all agreed on the next step,” Gootkin said.

“I think now we have a more defined plan on how we’re going to address the concern and the issues collectively. The proper stakeholders are all involved at this time. I have a feeling it’s going to go much better than in the past,” Gootkin said.

The sheriff said he is talking with Police Chief Gordon Berger and that the town manager is involved. And the town’s new attorney, Jane Mersen, of Bozeman, has “helped the process immensely,” he said.

No resistance

“There was absolutely no resistance from the town council,” he added.

Berger and other town officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Berger is under investigation by the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation. The state is looking into an allegation of official misconduct, said John Barnes, the department’s communications director. Barnes did not know when the investigation would be complete.

Berger has been with the department for 28 years and has been its chief since 2006.

“We are working with the sheriff’s department to address the sheriff’s concerns,” Mersen said. She said she could not discuss the matter further.

Growing concerns by citizens, law enforcement and the Park Service over public safety and training surfaced last September and led to Yellowstone National Park suspending its mutual aid agreement with the police department. The suspension remains in effect. Gootkin said the Park Service has been running everything through his office without any problems.

What’s next

The next step, Gootkin said, will be for his staff to evaluate the police department’s field training program, meet with all of the officers and evaluate their investigations.

The sheriff’s office also is working with the police department on an open felony case, Gootkin said.

While Gootkin wouldn’t discuss the details, he said the case involves a felony drunken-driving incident that happened last November in West Yellowstone.

No charges have been filed, he said.

The sheriff’s office will give its recommendations to the town in about six weeks, Gootkin said.

West Yellowstone, located 90 miles south of Bozeman and at the west gate of Yellowstone Park, has a population of about 1,300 but serves millions of tourists who visit the park each year, mostly during the summer.

The police department has a chief, a sergeant, four officers and six dispatchers. The sheriff’s office has two resident deputies in the town.

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