As unreal as it is for us to write this: No one disputes that three Billings police officers each had sex with a city employee either at City Hall or in a squad car.
Everyone agrees that happened — including the police department and the City of Billings.
Last week, when the city chose not to release the names of the three officers, The Billings Gazette, along with other media organizations, asked for more information, namely the officers involved who did this either while on duty or at least on city property. We argued the names were a matter of public record.
After a formal request for the information, the city agreed with us and on April 19 notified us it would release the information at 3 p.m. April 23.
Of course, those few days gave these three cops — all of whom had been disciplined — time to lawyer up.
While we don’t dispute that the city probably needed to inform its employees that the City was going to release their names and information, that notice gave the police officers time to rush to court to seek a temporary restraining order. Because the police officers filed suits in their own names, even while seeking to keep that information private, District Court Judge Michael Moses sealed the police officers’ filings.
Judge Moses also issued the restraining order and scheduled an expedited hearing. After setting a process on Friday afternoon, Judge Moses will consider the merits of the public’s right to know and the policy officers’ rights to privacy on May 14.
Unfortunately, the actions of several officers have tainted the entire force because no one yet knows who was disciplined, and therefore everyone in uniform is a suspect. We'd bet those who have nothing to hide aren't happy that their actions are under suspicion.
As we also reported, The Gazette and KTVQ have hired an attorney to fight for the public's right at these hearings. We believe the media, especially in the era of fake news accusations, needs to redouble our commitment as the public's watchdog. As politicians and pundits pitch the notion of a biased, declining media, we must demonstrate that public officials and leaders will not get a free pass even though they'd like to undercut the role of the media by allegations of fakery.
Even though we are troubled by the sex scandal, we're also chagrined by the silence from City Hall. While a few council members have privately shared concerns, the lack of response from our council and Mayor Bill Cole has been stunning. Recently, we've had problems with the evidence control, police-involved shootings and a sex scandal, and the council continues to act as if everything is normal.
And maybe that's the problem — the council lacks the political courage to ask for a more thorough explanation of how our local police department runs. If that's already happening behind the scenes, it's time to tell the public, which has been rightfully rocked by these recent actions. It's time for our public leaders to step up by giving voice to the concern and anger; it's time for them to act.
The city reminds us our police are understaffed. We're reminded that crime is a growing a problem and more money is needed. But, when making a pitch for more funding, we'd point out there's a difference between running your pants off and being caught with them down.
The law enforcement community may not have its house in order. When the city asks for its next safety levy, do our leaders expect voters won't ask the same questions? We, too, wonder: What does it take to get fired from the police force?
It boils down to trust.
Residents have to be sure that those who wear badges and carry guns have sound judgment, that they're not people who would have sex in City Hall's basement or in a squad car while on duty. We have to be able to trust that city leaders are holding their departments accountable.
We aren't seeking tawdry details. We're fighting to make sure those charged with our public safety have earned the trust we've given them.