By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A Havre City Council member has told city officials he is alarmed by the number of informal complaints he has received about the conduct of some of Havre's police officers.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said today he has also heard complaints and is working with Police Chief Kevin Olson to resolve the situation.
Allen "Woody" Woodwick expressed his concern about the complaints in a Jan. 8 letter sent to Olson and Rice. The letter was also forwarded to Rick Pierson, who chairs the City Council's Police and Fire Committee, as well as police commissioners Charles Floyd, Dick Bohn and Mike Shortell.
"I have been receiving numerous complaints about the conduct of some of our younger police officers," Woodwick said in the letter. "Because of the alarming frequency of these complaints, they cannot be dismissed as frivolous or merely people disgruntled over receiving a ticket. These complaints range from male officers frisking teen-aged females, illegal search and seizure, unprofessional conduct, intimidation, and profiling, to name a few."
Woodwick said he was "concerned that these activities will leave our city in a very vulnerable position with regards to lawsuits and civil rights violations."
He said during an interview this morning that the complaints he has received have varied.
"Some of the people that complained felt that the police came into their house without just cause," he said. "Females being frisked, I got a couple calls on that - high school girls, teenagers being frisked. Some of the conduct, the complainants felt that the conduct wasn't professional - intimidating, threatening."
Woodwick said he met with Olson on Friday to discuss the complaints.
"It's my duty when people come to me to complain to pass that along. I hope they will be addressed," he said. "Chief Olson told me that these will be investigated, and that if there is a problem there, it will be dealt with."
Olson said he does not take the allegations lightly, but stressed that the Police Department has not received any formal complaints about officer conduct. Citizens can file formal complaints against officers by filling out a form, he said. All formal complaints are investigated by the police commission.
Depending on the type of formal complaint, the department will decide on a course of action, Olson said. Complaints that are procedural, such as when an officer does not follow protocol but does not commit a crime, will be handled internally, he said. Complaints that allege criminal behavior will be investigated by an outside law enforcement agency, Olson added.
Olson said he occasionally receives informal complaints, adding that many are from people unfamiliar with police policies and procedures.
"Most complaints are from people wanting to make me aware of a particular incident or issue," he said. " They call up angry and by the end of the conversation, they're still angry but they have a better understanding of why the officer did what he did."
For instance, it is not improper for a male officer to search a female suspect, Olson said. When Havre's sole female officer is available, she generally conducts pat-downs on female suspects, but sometimes it is necessary for a male officer to do so, Olson said.
"It is necessary to protect the officer and ensure evidence is not destroyed," he said.
Very specific protocol dictates the manner in which the search is conducted, he added. Officers are taught to use the back of their hands to frisk a woman's abdomen and breasts, he said.
Although the allegations set forth in Woodwick's letter are unsubstantiated, Olson said they are "an extreme concern."
"That indicates to me that we need to do a better job in a couple areas," he said. "No. 1, I will not tolerate rogue officers. They have no place in this department. No. 2, a lot of these allegations are misconceptions. Maybe the officer didn't take enough time to explain his actions. That's something we can do better. And No. 3, if the citizens have a complaint, they need to come in or call. We will initiate a process to look into the situation."
Rice said he hopes to curb the number of complaints by installing dash-mounted cameras in all of the department's squad cars and recording conversations between officers and citizens via microphones. He said all of the cameras have been purchased and will begin to be installed today. He hopes to have them all operating by next week, he said.
It is not clear when the microphones will be put to use.
The audio and visual tape recordings will help identify which complaints are valid and which are not, Rice said. He said he considers the materials a matter of public record and would not require a court order for people to have access to them.
Rice said he has received some complaints about the conduct of the department's younger officers, but does not believe that sexual harassment or profiling has taken place.
"I know people have expressed concern about the zealousness of some of the younger officers," Rice said. " Most of them have been (about) rudeness. Attitude has a lot to do with this. You've got to understand, these kids are young, they come out of the academy kind of gung-ho. You have to take that into consideration as well."
Rice said he has no indication that any officers improperly searched teenage girls, but that the complaint will be looked into.
"I was livid," he said. "I have no substantiation on that, but we're going to check that out. (Olson) doesn't let any stone go unturned."
Rice also said he has heard complaints about gender and racial profiling, but doesn't think they are warranted. For instance, one complaint alleged that officers targeted women between the ages of 18 and 23, he said.
He and Olson "pulled all the tickets for the last year and broke them down," he said, adding that there did not appear to be any discrimination against young women.
"I just don't believe that profiling for young female teenagers is happening," he said. "I've also heard that we are profiling for Native Americans. There are a lot of Native Americans that are getting tickets, but I don't think they are getting profiled. We have a number of Native Americans on the police force, and if that were happening, they would come forward and say something about it. I just don't think that is happening either."
Rice emphasized that people with complaints should fill out the proper forms.
"There is a process," he said. "That's the vehicle we want people to use if they have a complaint. I had an elderly lady tell she was worried about reprisal. That is not going to happen. I would encourage them if they have a complaint that's valid, come forward and put it on paper, and Kevin and I will take a look at it."
The mayor also said that those reluctant to file a formal complaint could still contact him with their concerns.
"In the past, people have called me at home and asked to meet with me at home, or over coffee, or at McDonald's," he said, "and I will continue to do that. I do want them to feel like they have an input into the police force."
The complaints are being handled by Olson for the time being, Rice said.
"Well, Kevin and I have talked on a daily basis for several months about some of the concerns I have because people have called," he said. "I'm confident Kevin will take the appropriate action. If I have to call a special investigative committee, then we'll do it. I'm going to see where it goes for right know."
Shortell said the commission can't take action until a formal allegation is made against an individual police officer.
"My feeling is that it's not probably something for the police commission at this time," he said.
Pierson said he would also like to see Olson take appropriate action in responding to the complaints.
"If these allegations have some substance ... then it's the department head's job to do something about them," he said.
Havre Daily News reporter Jerome Tharaud contributed to this story.