Billings City Council members say they’re concerned about police officer behavior revealed in recent weeks, and some report they’ve heard concerns and criticism from their constituents, too.
The message from the city’s top elected officials includes holding officers accountable for their behavior, supporting the majority of cops who perform their duties with fidelity, and restoring public faith in a police force damaged by incidents of three officers who had sex with a civilian police employee, some while on duty and some on city-owned property.
Asked by The Gazette to talk about what they’ve heard from constituents and the steps they believe are needed going forward, eight of the 11 council members responded. Councilmembers Mike Yakawich, Brent Cromley and Shaun Brown did not respond to requests for comment on this matter.
“The behavior of these three officers is reprehensible and regrettable, but it is not irreparable or representative of the vast majority of officers who serve our city with integrity and deserve our support and respect,” Mayor Bill Cole said in an email. “I am concerned that it took several years to discover this misconduct, and we should dig deeper to be sure that department culture ensures prompt reporting and discipline of serious misbehavior by all officers and civilian employees.”
Cop culture was on Councilwoman Penny Ronning’s mind, too. Ronning, who represents Ward 4, said she believes the police interview and hiring process needs to be revamped to improve racial and gender parity among officers.
“Chief (Rich) St. John told us last week there are 10 or 11 female patrol officers. When the number is that low, it says the interview process is designed to hire a specific type of candidate,” she said. “I operate in the world as a white female, so I bring that perspective. A Native American woman or a black woman would bring a different perspective.”
Ronning said the council “has been kept in the dark, from my perspective” as the police case unfolded.
“We had emails, but they were very general, and they tended to come after I’d read about it on social media or in the newspaper … I do credit the chief with providing service for a growing community without the funds needed to match the drugs and the amount of crime that have come into the community. I think we need to look at who we are and what do we want and are we willing to fund that,” Ronning said.
Dick Clark, a Ward 5 councilman, said he hasn’t heard from a large number of constituents, but has followed the case through social media.
“Moving forward, I think we may have to take a look (at the department) and work with the city administrator, not the chief and the officers themselves,” he said. “I think they should review the whole situation of discipline and maybe change some policies.”
Councilwoman Denise Joy, Ward 3, said she’s had “a lot of feedback from people who wear blue. They want to know, why weren’t these guys fired? I feel like we need to treat the police department as no different from any other department, and I think we need to have the back of good officers.”
She said she’s not sure how the misconduct will affect another run at asking voters to approve a public safety levy.
“I think we need to show people we’re really interested in restoring public trust,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done restoring confidence.”
Chris Friedel, who like Joy represents Ward 3, called it “disconcerting to see these things continue to crop up. It’s an integrity issue, especially with the police department. If people don’t feel that officers have integrity, it makes for abrasive conversations between peace officers and the community.
“People think the police department is out of control, but I know a lot of them, and they want to protect the community,” he said. “I want to hold people accountable, but the people who are ultimately affected are the (three officers) and their families. What’s the upside of bringing these things out (in public)? I guarantee it was far worse at home than it was publicly. They made a mistake and they owned up to it, and after you make a mistake, it’s what you do afterward that gives you better character.”
Fourth Ward councilman Reg Gibbs said in an email a comment isn’t appropriate until the data from the investigation is gathered and analyzed, followed by a “thoughtful, informed decision” by St. John, City Administrator Bruce McCandless, “and other qualified city personnel. Discussing this matter before a final decision or judgment has been made can lead to fomenting of negative public sentiment that is detrimental to our City and the Police Department.”
Ward 2 councilmen Frank Ewalt and Larry Brewster both shared their thoughts. Brewster recalled that one of the three officers dated his daughter while they were in high school.
“The sad part is the collateral damage to the department and the chief, who has done a pretty good job through all this,” Brewster said.
The goal with any discipline that’s applied should be predictability and fairness, he said, recalling the days when he supervised other employees in the private sector.
“You have to be even-handed and careful,” he said.
Ewalt predicted that “now that all this is out of the bag, we’ll go on to something else. Whatever the juiciest story is, that’s what people follow.”