Concerns over public safety and training issues with the West Yellowstone Police Department have drawn the scrutiny of Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin and prompted the National Park Service to suspend its mutual aid agreement with the department.
Tim Reid, Yellowstone National Park’s chief ranger, said this week that until the police department’s program meets the sheriff’s requirements, the Park Service will not be calling on the town’s police officers as special deputies to respond to calls within the park. The suspension became effective Sept. 6.
“We opted to take a prudent approach until things settle out to ensure protection of our agency and our staff,” Reid said.
Under the mutual aid agreement, West Yellowstone police officers could respond to park calls and stabilize a situation until rangers arrived, Reid said.
Park Service rangers will continue to respond to fire and emergency medical calls in West Yellowstone, to life safety calls and to law enforcement incidents under a Gallatin County agreement, Reid said.
“We would respond under a Good Samaritan clause,” he said, but not to lesser matters.
West Yellowstone, located 90 miles south of Bozeman and at the west gate of Yellowstone Park, has a population of about 1,300 people. The town sees millions of tourists who visit the park each year, mostly in the summer.
The police department has a chief, a sergeant, four officers and six dispatchers. The sheriff’s office has two resident deputies in West Yellowstone, while the Park Service has rangers at its western district office.
“We are the three primary law enforcement agencies. It’s such a small community,” Gootkin said. “We would never not back up an officer in danger or who needs help,” he said.
Gootkin has met with Police Chief Gordon Berger and the Park Service. This week, the sheriff sent two lieutenants to meet with Berger to review his training records and to offer assistance.
The sheriff also said he has invited Berger to fill two slots at a firearms instructor course.
Berger declined to comment Thursday. He has been with the police department for 27 years and became chief in 2006.
One of the concerns, Gootkin said, is lack of officer training and certifications on weapons including firearms, stun guns, pepper spray and batons.
“I think it’s a combination of not being qualified and no or very little record keeping,” Gootkin said.
“The number one concern is the safety of the public. If an officer is not being trained, then what level of service is being provided?” Gootkin said.
Liability is another issue. If there were a situation where force was used and a lawsuit was filed, “the first thing they go after is policy and training,” Gootkin said.
While declining to identify specific problems or complaints, the sheriff said the concern about the police department is “something that has been building for a long period of time.”
Citizens, law enforcement in the West Yellowstone area and also the Park Service had contacted him with officer safety and training issues, Gootkin said. What he heard gave him enough concern that he went to West Yellowstone to meet with Berger, he said.
As sheriff, Gootkin is the chief law enforcement officer in the county and has jurisdiction over West Yellowstone.
Berger, the sheriff said, has been open to assistance.
“We’re going to do everything we can to help him,” Gootkin said. “I am also not going to do his job for him.”
Gootkin said he will prepare a list of recommendations for Berger, the town council and the mayor.
“We’re going to absolutely make sure they follow through. I’m responsible ultimately,” he said.