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Since May 2017, Billings police officers have shot and killed five men who threatened or appeared to threaten serious harm to the public or the officers.

Each one of these cases is unique, defying broad assumptions about why so many deadly confrontations happened in less than a year. Since 2012, Billings has seen between one and three cases each calendar year in which officers used deadly force in the line of duty.

Why so many officer-involved shootings in Billings?

Well, Montana’s largest city is also a hub for transportation and the relocation site for a large share of people coming out of the Montana Department of Corrections system. The 29-year-old man who reportedly lunged with a knife toward officers Monday had been released from a DOC contract program just days earlier. Likewise, the Crow Agency man who drove a vehicle into the Big Bear Sporting Goods store last November had graduated from a DOC contract program less than a week earlier. 

Rather than second-guess any officer’s response, the community should ask what are the best practices to assure that law officers employ deadly force only when appropriate?

Best practices

Certainly, professional law enforcement training and continuing education, including firearms qualification, is key. Many Billings police officers have received Crisis Intervention Training through the Community Crisis Center, to gain skills in de-escalating situations involving mentally ill or otherwise disturbed individuals. All officers should have that training.

Another best practice is bringing in an outside agency to investigate officer-involved shootings. All of Montana’s largest cities have arranged with the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation to conduct investigations of their officer-involved shootings — all except Billings.

So Billings police detectives are investigating the two fatal officer-involved shootings that occurred this week. Through an agreement with DCI, state investigators will review the Billings detectives’ report.

Then the case will be reviewed by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. Finally, a coroner’s inquest will be held for each death. Usual practice is for a coroner from outside Yellowstone County to conduct the inquests for officer-involved shootings.

The practice of requesting an out-of-county coroner begs the question: Why not also have outside professionals conduct the investigation? That would assure the public (and the family of the deceased) that detectives had no conflict.

Outside investigators

Police chiefs and sheriffs across Montana have told The Gazette that they have used outside investigators for decades in these serious cases. “There is that perception if you investigate something that serious yourself, that people will look at it that way,” Helena Police Chief Troy McGee told Gazette reporter Sam Wilson in a November interview.

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John agrees. Back in 2016, he worked to organize several Montana law enforcement agencies to help each other with officer-involved shooting investigations. The plan hasn’t worked yet. Obstacles include differences in department policies and limitations on personnel. Even the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and BPD haven’t been able to work out a policy of regularly investigating each other’s OIS cases. If St. John asked for help, as he has on occasion, the sheriff’s office would help, Sheriff Mike Linder said. But it could be tough with only six detectives in the entire sheriff’s office, all of them could be tied up on one investigation, leaving none for other cases.

“This boils down to a resource issue,” said Montana Department of Justice spokesman Eric Sell. Because the state DCI has no officers to spare, DCI and BPD have an agreement for the state agency to review BPD’s investigations.

In 2017, BPD investigated its three OIS cases while DCI investigated six others elsewhere in Montana. According to data compiled by Bryan Lockerbie, DCI administrator, Montana has seen 39 officer-involved shootings since 2012 and DCI investigated 30 of them. These cases included 24 deaths of people shot by officers.

Billings left out

BPD is shouldering a heavier load than the rest of the state. Our police officers have more calls for service, more people in their jurisdiction and less state support. We aren’t faulting DCI or BPD; those agencies are trying to make the best of an undesirable situation. The people who control the DCI budget are the 150 state legislators and Attorney General Tim Fox.

Montana has seen controversy over local police shootings, but none so big that the city or state was compelled to mandate outside investigations. The recent uptick should spur state policy makers to face reality. It would be far better to have a state requirement and state resources for independent investigations in place before disastrous controversy strikes here as it has in other U.S. cities.