Annette Hayden Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
A peacefully proactive scenario unfolded at the Havre Police and Fire Committee meeting Tuesday where members discussed possible advances in police department practices, which will be carried forward as suggestions to the city council on Dec. 3. The air of the meeting was a radical contrast to the emotionallycharged complaints against police, presented at the Oct. 30 committee meeting, including accusations of profiling, intimidation, hostility, fear of retaliation, inappropriate charges, confusion over charges and inappropriate questioning, according to one reporter's account. Committee Chair Terry Schend had called that public meeting, primarily to hear complaints and criticism from the public, after citizens brought complaints about police activities to the city council during the regular public comment period on Oct. 15. One complainant, Patty Donnes, had said her chief concern was that police behavior had inflamed an incident involving juveniles. She also questioned the amount of training Officers received before becoming active on the force, which Schend said was a 12-week stint at the Montana Police Academy. Another complainant, Julie Nelson, voiced concern that officers did not seem to have a policy as to how to inform parents of charges brought against their children in a concise manner. Others presented complaints of police getting involved in civil matters. At Tuesday's committee meeting the purpose was to find possible solutions to these four main issues of public interest: police training, how to inform parents of the arrest process, civil matters involving police, and a way for the public to be able to file complaints about police without having to go to the police station. Civil matters versus criminal The first item of discussion Tuesday focused on complaints of police becoming involved in what citizens viewed as civil matters. "One call I am aware of involved a civil matter between neighbors that got to a situation where one neighbor had another's hedge cut down which turned it criminal," said committee member Rick Pierson (Havre-Ward 2). "The police were called to keep the peace, their presence was a protective measure. Civil can turn criminal. It has happened before." City clerk Lowell Swenson pointed out it is the police officer's job in situations of civil turned possibly criminal to write a report about the incident, which is turned to other authorities such as insurance investigators. Swenson suggested this was an area of public concern that might benefit from officers receiving more training and that the public could benefit from further knowledge of police duties. Committee member Gerry Veis (Havre-Ward 1) said, "The question is, are we as tax payers going to pay extra for extra training?" He said the current average job experience of the younger officers on the Havre force ranges from two to three years. He said that further training could help officers gain sensitivity skills in dealing with both neighbors and parents with juveniles in trouble, but that as a council person he wondered where money for this kind of training could be found. In the interim, committee members said they did not want to discourage police from doing their jobs. "I have previously discussed with Police Chief George Tate that we don't want to jeopardize the police doing their jobs," said Swenson. "I have had people call call and say someone just needs to take kids (who commit crimes) behind a barn. Others say to do the same to police officers. There are opinions on both sides." Pierson pointed out that the Police and Fire Committee's job was not to micro-manage the police department or the mayor's office, but to find possible recommendations for improvement. "The administrators of the police department need to look at whether there are problems in their ranks," he said. "The mayor is the director of the city workforce, but in the police department when the administrators see a problem they need to take their younger members in hand." Public complaint filing The committee also focused on finding a means not only for free flow of complaints against police, but of all city employees. "The complaint process will work better when people don't have to go to the police department to file a complaint against the police," Pierson said. "If there are complaints from the public they should be heard by a board, including members of the police, the city, the police union ..." Committee member Allen Woodwick (Havre-Ward 4) said "one of the biggest things I heard at the last meeting was the complaint process. We have an excellent police department. Maybe some younger officers need more training, but I think the system for receiving and dealing with complaints needs to go outside of the police department. I think the council should be utilized. I am happy to take complaints and I think people should be able to bring their complaints to the city council. I think the general public has the perception they are afraid of the police and we need to fix the problem." Veis suggested there be a centralized means for the gathering of complaints of all city personnel, departments and activities. He disagreed with the council becoming involved in the complaint handling process. Instead, he said, department administrators, which are hired with the approval of the council, should be allowed and encouraged to do their jobs. He pointed out that in the case of the police department, both the chief and assistant chief had fairly recently moved into their new positions and should be allowed time to work out the kinks of their offices. He compared the city entity to another, that of the public works department and asked his committee members to consider the same situation of new administrators attempting to handle water line breaks and sewer problems. "Granted there might have been mistakes in how police have handled situations, but I think the police administrators should be given a chance to handle their internal affairs." Pierson responded, "Stan Martin (assistant police chief) and George Tate have been in the administrative situation a long time. The public should not have to feel any intimidation in filing a complaint. We also do not want our officers to get gun shy and thinking that if they do their job they are going to get reprimanded for complaints." Pierson said the solution was to provide further training to officers and provide a centralized complaint process. "It probably is intimidating to ask they guy who gave you a ticket for a complaint form," Swenson agreed. Committee suggestions to be passed on to the council and mayor's office include placing complaint forms and a filing box in the lobby of city hall and to remove the requirement of a notary, as long as there is no legal ramification, as well as to consider an objective means for reviewing complaints against all city personnel. Woodwick said former police chief Mike Barthel (who was present at the meeting as a public spectator) had been in the process of revamping the complaint form and that Barthel would assist in completing the process. Informing parents on juvenile issues Perhaps the most passionate discussion was that of how police should or should not inform parents of the legal process during an arrest of a juvenile. "The issue of informing parents of what a juvenile could be charged with I guess that procedure got out of hand," said Swensen. "Perhaps officers could hand parents a pamphlet when a child was arrested." Veis countered. "It is the police officers job to investigate a crime and report their findings which leads to what charges will be filed," he said. "The question of what charges are filed should be asked of a lawyer. I think it is the job of the officer to file charges and not say anything. When activity is happening that is criminal, it is there job to stop it from happening. If parents have questions regarding charges you need to see an attorney." Woodwick suggested a pamphlet that officers could hand to parents explaining the basic procedures could be helpful. He also said parents could be made aware that at the time of an arrest the extent of charges to be filed is not always known. "If not a pamphlet then maybe a letter to parents outlining the charges and what to expect, along with contact phone numbers so a parent knows what to expect," he said. Committee members agreed with Pierson who said, "I don't believe any officer should have to answer a parent who asks 'What's the worst case scenario?' A police officer could say what he thinks and the parent is wondering 'Am I going to have a place to live when all this is through?' That is number one why it is not good for police to talk about the charges. A pamphlet would free the officer. When people are under duress they think the officer just doesn't care." Veis said he didn't believe a pamphlet or any advise should be given to the parents on behalf of the police. "There is nothing wrong with (a police officer) saying 'I don't know.' Most of the time they won't know until the investigation is complete." Public response erupted from several members of the audience in agreement with "That was all that was needed," and "Yes, just say I don't know." Tate advised the committee he was already in the process of constructing an informational pamphlet to assist parents in the legal process when a child is taken into custody. "The pamphlet was my idea," he said. "It would not be for the offender, but for the parent it would be a reference. It would be helpful especially in a first-offense where there was no prior experience." The committee agreed to suggest a basic informational pamphlet be completed. Training Budget concerns were countered with the committee members full agreement that further and ongoing training needed to be made available to Havre police officers. Training in mental health issues, domestic violence and many more could be beneficial the committee agreed. "Any type of training is always beneficial," Veis said. "But I don't want to see a budget were we lose officers, because we are paying for training. There have to be cheaper ways like maybe a Web-nar class. That is something our department heads should present to the mayor and then bring to us for approval." Other committee ideas included allowing time for more experienced members of the Havre police department to provide training to newer officers, and to bring instructors to Havre instead of sending officers to schools. The committee members agreed they would give there full support to any ideas brought by the police department or the mayor in providing more training to officers. Public comment Of the 15 citizens who attended the committee meeting, one came forward at the end with public comment. "This is the most sense we have made since this all began," said Jeff Nelson, a Havre resident and parent of a juvenile previously involved in a crime. "I appreciate all the talking about this."