Police annual report

The Billings Police Department's Neil Lawrence, left, and Chief Rich St. John deliver the department's annual report on Monday, April 1, 2019.

Who polices the police?

It's kind of an odd but important question.

After all, the people who have the power to come into your home, pull you over, take you to jail, or handcuff you have admittedly a lot of power.

With 150 uniformed police officers, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John has a big staff. And even if 2% of them get in trouble every year, that's still three people who stand to give the department a public relations black eye. We get that no staff is perfect and police are human. We've seen many police officers make mistakes, have those become public, and yet those individuals go on to successful careers.

Yet, St. John's signature on a letter that questions the state's Peace Officer Standards and Training Council is troubling. He wants the state to take a back seat when it comes to meting out discipline, leaving that up to the individual departments. We think that's a recipe for abuse and disaster.

Leaving it up to the police to police their fellow officers is simply unfair. Doing so is asking officers, many of whom rely on each other for safety and protection, to discipline themselves. That seems like opening the door for abuse.

We know that officers are probably reluctant to come down harshly on colleagues. And we know that if police departments cover up misdeeds within the department, it will undermine the credibility of law enforcement. Nobody wins in such cases.

If St. John and others who signed a letter complaining of the POST council were successful, essentially nobody would police the police. They would literally be a law unto themselves. That is too much power without check.

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Let's also take a moment to explain that POST doesn't hire or discipline officers. It simply certifies individuals as having the minimum requirements necessary for peace officers. The departments can still hire and discipline their own officers. But like any state licensing board, it simply makes sure the standards are being maintained. When it comes to misbehavior, it also ensures that officers who have breached public trust are not turned back to interact with unsuspecting citizens. 

Instead of criticizing the POST council, St. John and other law enforcement leaders should be thanking it for upholding the integrity of the badge they wear. 

What's even more disconcerting is that St. John continues to support officers who undermine the good work of those in his department. Case-in-point, St. John uses as an example former BPD officer Joshua Schoening who pleaded guilty to driving drunk off duty, punching a person and then refusing a sobriety test. 

Why St. John feels the need to support an officer who acted in such an egregious way is stunning. Then again, former BPD officer Paul Lamantia was given many chances for very poor behavior, including having sex on city property before finally leaving. Lamantia had more than a dozen infractions in less than nine years on the force and resigned. If anything, this shows that more is needed to tighten standards because departments seem reticent to do it.

When St. John said that he feels like the state council is doing what he won't, we believe he's right. And instead of criticizing the board, he should be thanking them for doing what he won't do. 

Any lawmaker or leader should look at the letter that St. John wrote and then look at the disciplinary cases from Billings. We'd also urge residents to comb through the disciplinary actions of POST. Some of the incidents are sad and shocking. 

Instead of tsk-tsking the council, residents should be doing everything they can to make sure peace officers have accountability and oversight. They'd also do well to remember that POST can't revoke any certification without an officer first acting poorly.

We should be demanding more from our peace officers, not less. 

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