By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The union that represents Havre police officers has blasted city officials for their handling of informal complaints about the conduct of some of the officers, and called the complaints "unsubstantiated rumors."
The Montana Public Employees Association in a news release lauded the professionalism of Havre police and criticized city officials for making "irresponsible and inflammatory" comments. The release, drafted by unnamed police officers and by MPEA representatives Richard Letang and Tom Bivins, encouraged people with complaints to follow the department's formal complaint process by making a statement in writing.
"Almost all law enforcement agencies have a formal process for dealing with suspected or alleged officer wrong doing," the release said.
"We at the union strongly believe that elected city representatives should use this process to relay information of alleged wrong doing through the appropriate channels at the Police Department rather than make broad allegation at public meetings that get printed in the newspapers."
Letang said today the union's press release was in response to a Jan. 8 letter written by City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick about allegations of police misconduct and subsequent media coverage. In the letter, sent to Havre Mayor Bob Rice and Police Chief Kevin Olson, Woodwick expressed alarm at the number and nature of informal complaints he has received about some of the department's younger officers.
The complaints "range from male officers frisking teen-aged females, illegal search and seizure, unprofessional conduct, intimidation, and profiling," Woodwick's letter said.
Rice said he also has fielded numerous informal complaints about officer conduct, most involving rudeness.
Letang said this morning that authorities cannot take action on the complaints until they are formally filed with the Police Department.
"These informal complaints need to be formalized, if there's any substance to them," Letang said. "I don't know what action can be taken until you know what the accusations are about. To my knowledge, there has not been one specific allegation about a particular officer or incident."
Woodwick met with Olson last week to discuss the complaints. He said this morning that he does not believe any action will be taken by the department until formal complaints are filed, but that formal complaints will be investigated by the department. He echoed the sentiment in a Jan. 10 letter sent to Olson and Rice.
"(Olson) assured me that all complaints will be thoroughly investigated and appropriately dealt with," the letter said.
The MPEA said the informal complaints described by Woodwick and Rice unfairly vilify the entire department in the eyes of the public.
"You cannot make allegations against an entire police department, when there hasn't even been a formal complaint on one officer," the MPEA press release said.
Woodwick said last week that the complaints he has heard were in regard to several particular officers. He declined to name them.
Letang said today the complaints likely stem from people angry about being arrested.
"In this line of duty, when an officer issues a ticket or initiates an arrest, those aren't happy people," he said.
"These people are coming in with broad-based accusations. The officers feel like they are being persecuted by the media, and to some extent, by the City Council. What this does is make the whole department sound like it's corrupt, and that's probably the farthest thing from the truth."
The MPEA release criticized Rice and Woodwick for making comments to the media about the alleged misconduct when no formal complaints have been filed.
"If the Havre Police Department acted as carelessly as the city elected officials have in this situation, innocent people would be victims on a daily basis," it said.
"It seems to us that such actions by public officials are irresponsible and inflammatory."
Letang said the statements were intended to convey the union's belief that allegations of police misconduct are premature.
"If an investigating police officer went out there and made arrests based on general accusations without investigating, imagine what that would be like in the community," he said.
Letang said that for the complaints to have credibility, they must be filed following formal protocol.
"What it seems to me is that Rice and Woodwick need to go to these people and get more specifics, and assure these people that if they reduce the complaint to writing, (the complaint) will be investigated," he said.
Both Rice and Woodwick have said some of the people who complained to them have expressed fear of police retaliation for filing complaints.
Letang said the fears are unrealistic and that he could not recall an incident in Havre in which a person was retaliated against for filing a complaint.
Woodwick said today he would encourage anyone who complains to him about police conduct to file a formal complaint.
The MPEA release also questioned two statements Rice made last week. In one, made to the Havre Daily News, Rice said he considered audio and video recordings captured by dash-mounted cameras to be a matter of public record.
The MPEA said such material should be reviewed only by "police management or the city attorney."
"My concern is that when the mayor says the public can come in and view these things, these tapes contain other private things," Letang said. "I think there's privacy concerns for other individuals on the tapes. You need to have them looked at by someone qualified to determine whether the officer acted inappropriately."
The MPEA letter also criticized Rice for telling a television station that if the complaints were found to be true, some officers might be fired.
Rice could not be reached for comment today.
Olson declined to comment about the MPEA release, saying he had not read it. The MPEA represents 17 police officers under the rank of captain.