Saying he was addressing “the elephant in the room,” Police Chief Rich St. John told the Billings City Council Monday that the “misdeeds of a few officers should not be a broad-brushed opinion of how the Police Department operates.”
St. John was referring to the controversy after the revelation that three officers were punished for having sex with a woman on city property, some while on duty, as well as another case in which an officer having an affair with a Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputy lost his job after a number of policy violations.
“Those officers committed egregious policy violations. I don’t condone it, and it won’t be tolerated,” St. John said during the council’s first budget hearing. The one-week and two-week suspensions St. John meted out “were based on overlapping policies, (labor) contracts and best practices we have. I know that people don’t agree with that, but it’s well-founded and defensible. To do any other would have been wrong” and would probably have ended up in litigation, he said.
St. John said he regretted publicly identifying the woman, whom The Gazette has chosen not to name.
“The confirmation of her name was a mistake on my part, and I apologize for that happening,” he said. “I thought the officers’ names would be released as well … It appears I am retaliating (against her), and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
St. John said the cases were investigated “as soon as we learned about them.” Discipline was handed down based on fair and consistent guidelines, he said, “and if you look at our annual report, you will see that we investigate our own. We hold our people accountable” with “a wide variety of disciplines.”
St. John said when he became chief a dozen years ago, he inherited “a department with significant personnel problems. We had big lawsuits, and we paid out some big money, and that has not happened since.”
Some council members said they appreciated St. John’s candor during Monday’s meeting and his long leadership.
“I was (on the council) before the chief. We had more claims in the Police Department than all the big cities in Montana combined,” said Councilman Larry Brewster. “Since he came here, we have had a very solid department.” The controversy over the officers’ conduct “has put a taint on a really fine department and a really fine chief,” Brewster said.
“I gained a little respect for you stepping up tonight,” said Councilman Shaun Brown. “That shows a lot of integrity.”
Councilwoman Penny Ronning took issue with St. John’s published comments in media reports that those punished are good officers who made a bad mistake.
“When I see a police officer in a position of authority order someone to put down a gun, that’s the same authority as when they ask a civilian employee to have sex,” she said. “I think we have questions that need to be further explored.”
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St. John replied that he agrees that officers are held to a higher standard, and are the only city employees responsible for their conduct both on and off duty.
“They are good officers who do good work, but they committed policy violations and were disciplined for it,” he said.
Councilwoman Denise Joy said it’s “unfortunate” that the officers “chose poorly.”
“When we look at relationships in the workplace, we quickly come to the problem of sexual harassment and consent,” Joy said. “People with different levels of power within an organization, often companies will not allow (fraternization). In the future,” she said to the chief, “is that part of what you are considering with officers and clerks?”
That policy is in place with officers and their supervisors, he said, but officer/clerical relations “are not something we have had problems with.”
Councilman Reg Gibbs told St. John he believes the chief has handled the controversy well, but “your hands are tied. One thing goes wrong, and it shades the other 99 percent of the good work that goes on every day.”
“We have taken a hit, and rightly so,” St. John said. “It is exacerbated by the fact that they are public employees on the public’s time. We will redouble our efforts to make sure everyone understands what our expectations are.”
He said he can’t understand why news organizations, including The Billings Gazette and KTVQ-TV, are suing for, among other documents, the department’s manuals detailing policies and procedures.
Those are public documents, St. John said, except for portions redacted because they outline tactical information. “If they ask,” he said, “I will give (the documents) to the media.”
He offered to place the redacted policies and procedures on the department’s website.
He reminded the council of a motto he’s repeated often to new officers the day they’re sworn in: "Do the right thing in the right way at the right time for the right reason."