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Panel will review how police handle complaints

In response to allegations of misconduct by some officers, the Havre Police Department has implemented a new policy that calls for an independent panel to examine how the department handles citizen complaints.

A review panel will be established anytime the Police Department receives a formal complaint about the conduct of any department employee, including police officers, dispatchers and office support staff, Police Chief Mike Barthel said today.

The review panel will not decide what disciplinary action, if any, to take against an officer, but will determine whether department administrators acted appropriately in their response to the complaint, and can make recommendations about discipline and the process used to investigate complaints, Barthel said.

The review panel could also recognize those officers whose conduct "is above and beyond the call of duty," Barthel said. For instance, if a citizen praised the conduct of a particular officer, the panel could convene and formally recognize the officer, he said.

The complaint review panel will consist of three people: one appointed by the mayor; the county attorney or her designee; and a member of the police union or its designee, Barthel said. A panel will be appointed anytime a complaint or commendation is received by the Police Department. The panel is based on a model used in Great Falls, he added.

In addition to establishing the panel, the Police Department has also begun documenting informal citizen complaints. Barthel said informal complaints include when a citizen wants to have an officer spoken to about his or her behavior, but does not want any further disciplinary action taken.

Those complaints are documented using a form developed by former Chief Kevin Olson. Barthel said Olson prepared the form after Havre City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick sent a letter to Olson and Havre Mayor Bob Rice on Jan. 8 about citizen complaints about Havre police.

In the letter, Woodwick identified several types of complaints he had received about some of the department's younger officers, including excessive use of force, illegal search and seizure and racial profiling.

Woodwick could not be reached for comment today.

Both Barthel and Mayor Bob Rice said they have found nothing to substantiate the allegations in the letter. Barthel was appointed police chief on March 12 after Olson left to take a state job.

Rice praised the Police Department in a press release issued Friday.

"When I first heard about the possible complaints against the Police Department, I wanted to find out first-hand whether any of them would stand up to the light of day," Rice said in the release. "I talked to community members and rode with the police officers on the various shifts. I asked around but did not find any evidence of the possible complaints. Our officers do a great job in very difficult circumstances for us. We're honored by their professionalism and service."

Rice said today he thinks establishing the panel is important.

"We're public servants. The taxpayers pay our salary and they deserve to be treated with respect, but the officers also need to be treated with respect," he said.

The types of recommendations made by the panel will vary, Rice added.

"The panel will recommend whether disciplinary action should be taken, or policy or procedure changes. Maybe they recommend a police officer take a vacation," he said.

Barthel said he believes establishing the review panel will allow the public to see how the Police Department handles complaints against its employees.

"We thought it would be best to include the public in the review process," he said.

The Police Department has received one formal complaint since Woodwick wrote the letter, Barthel said. The complaint, which does not deal with any of the types of allegations in the letter, is still under investigation, he added.

The majority of the informal complaints the department has received have to deal with officer rudeness, Assistant Chief George Tate said this morning. In those instances, most people simply want a supervisor to talk to the officer, he said.

If informal complaints against a particular officer were to persist, department administrators could review recordings to see whether the officer was acting inappropriately, he said. The Police Department's five cruisers were recently outfitted with dash-mounted cameras that record audio transmissions from a microphone carried by the officer.

The department has used dash-mounted cameras for some time, but the audio recording feature is new. Although its primary purpose is to generate evidence that can be used in criminal investigations, it also allows the department to monitor how officers act when dealing with the public, Tate said.

The Police Department has not changed its procedures for filing a formal complaint. To file one, a person needs to fill out a complaint form, which Barthel said can be obtained through the Police Department, the Havre City Council, or the mayor's office. The complaint must be submitted to the Police Department. Barthel said he will then assign a supervisor to investigate the complaint and make a recommendation about what action to take. The police chief will have final say on discipline, other than firing, which must be approved by the mayor.


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