Local officials discuss training, police funding, changes in response to calls for reform

(The above photo is from a joint training with Great Falls Police Department, Great Falls Fire Rescue and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office in August 2019)

For the last month, discussions have been going on nationwide about police reform and reducing for, or disbanding law enforcement agencies.

Local law enforcement has been reviewing their policies and procedures and in some cases, making changes.

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said he’s creating an advisory committee to review use of force reports monthly.

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The committee includes the undersheriff, county attorney, CCSO training staff, a defense attorney and a citizen member. For now, Slaughter has asked a local representative of the Black community.

Members will have to sign confidentiality agreements and will review reports, videos and evidence associated with a use of force case.

Slaughter said they’ll be able to offer outside perspective, potential advice on improving procedures and “provide a layer of transparency.”

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Previously, Slaughter said any use of force incident is reviewing by a supervisor to make sure it was within CCSO policy and the law. He said that since deputies typically respond alone, they don’t have many use of force cases.

The Great Falls Police Department is also reviewing their policies and procedures and make recommendations for any changes, but City Manager Greg Doyon said during the June 16 City Commission meeting that, “for me, defunding the police is not one of those options.”

Doyon said he’d begun discussions representatives of the Black community about race in the city and that he’s hoping it will increase access and raise awareness of any issues.

“That is a process that will take time to build trust,” Doyon said.

Mayor Bob Kelly suggested inviting representatives of the American Indian community in town as well.

Doyon said the community had a forum in March about crime, at the request of the mayor, and that he hopes that discussion doesn’t get lost in the current conversation.

At that forum, multiple law enforcement agencies attended, as did the county attorney’s office and about a dozen community agencies that work with law enforcement to help with mental health, social services, homelessness, addiction and more.

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“Our police are integrated into those agencies,” Doyon said. “I’m really proud that here in Great Falls, we’ve done that. We’re ahead of the curve.”

During the June 16 meeting, Commissioner Rick Tryon said they had received about 30 form emails calling to defund the police department.

“If anything, I think we need to add funds,” Tryon said. “Defunding to me is a ludicrous notion and I would never entertain it in a million years.”

Commissioner Owen Robinson said he was proud of Chief Dave Bowen.

“You have always had the back of the citizens of Great Falls,” he said.

Commissioner Mary Moe said she agreed the city has a “fine police force,” officials should take a look at the numbers to see if they could do better.

As these discussions have been happening, The Electric took a look at how the Great Falls Police Department and Cascade County Sheriff’s Office operate. We’ll continue to follow the discussion and any concerns raised with current, local policing practices, as well as any changes made as a result of the discussions. If there’s something we should be aware of to look into, contact Jenn at jenn@theelectricgf.com.

The Electric has talked to various officials and reviewed public documents pertaining to law enforcement in our community with particular focus on the requests that have been made by local protesters, including:

  • prioritizing de-escalation training;
  • reducing or eliminating armed law enforcement in schools;
  • commit to continuing education regarding racial equity and personal bias;
  • create an external review process for all incidents involving force. Increase transparency and accountability for all such incidents;
  • utilizing mental health professionals to respond to people in crisis.

According to officials at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, Great Falls Police Department and Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, de-escalation training has been a component of basic training for law enforcement officers statewide for several years and is part of ongoing training at the local level.

Mike McCarthy is the operations manager at the MLEA and also teaches use of force and defensive tactics at the academy.

De-escalation training is a specific class based on the Crisis Intervention Training Montana model in the basic course that new officers must complete within their first year at a law enforcement agency in Montana. McCarthy said they then build on that and reinforce the training with other classes and continue reinforcing that training through scenarios.

CIT Montana is an agency that provides a 40-hour de-escalation course to agencies statewide in addition to the basic training at the academy.

“We’ve been doing de-escalation training for several years,” McCarthy said. “This isn’t new and we’ll continue to do it.”

De-escalation is essentially taking someone in crisis and talking them down the best an officer can.

“It’s having a conversation with them. Taking this bad day and seeing what’s causing this bad day and seeing if we can get this resolved without violence,” McCarthy said. “It’s recognizing that we have a person in crisis, seeing if we can figure out why they’re in crisis and see if we can do something about it. But sometimes you can’t.”

There have been numerous cases statewide during which a trained crisis negotiator talks with a person in crisis, they think they’re making progress, and the then the person pulls a gun, McCarthy said.

“It’s a horrible roller coaster ride,” he said. “It’s still up to the individual but at least it [de-escalation training] gives the officer some skills to see if they can talk them out of whatever it is that they’re doing.”

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Capt. John Schaffer of the Great Falls Police Department said that after the 2014 shooting of an 18-year-old black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., the GFPD launched a review of their policies that lasted from 2014-2017 and resulted in a complete revamping of their policies to be more reflective of the community.

They also implemented defensive tactics training to end resistance quicker so police don’t have to escalate to a higher level of force. Schaffer said it can look horrible to a civilian onlooker, but it can resolve a situation quicker and ensure everyone lives.

“The faster we end conflict, the better we’re gonna be,” he said.

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said during the first year of his term, CCSO was conducting monthly use of force training, but having multiple deputy vacancies required most deputies to do training on overtime.

During that year, the department spend $84,000 in overtime costs for the use of force training so they had to reduce that training for now.

Slaughter said now the department is fully staffed for deputies and have been tightening up overtime usage over all to lower those costs and to ramp training back up. He’s also looking into more web based training and a volunteer training program, in which deputies participate in training opportunities on their own time, which he said has been well received so far.

Slaughter said use of force training includes de-escalation of force, as well as the escalation of force, the use of intermediate weapons and up to deadly force. It also includes mindset, which Slaughter said is one of the most important things they train on, which involves scenario based training.

McCarthy, the use of force instructor at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, said that when it comes to use of force, there’s a level of resistance from the individual we’re trying to deal with. That can be resisting arrest or fighting in some way, which is where de-escalation comes in.

“You try talking first,” he said. “I’m a small officer. I explain to these guys, I talked more people into handcuffs or talked them into cars than I ever had to fight them into handcuffs or cars.”

There’s the level of resistance from a subject and a level of force from an officer.

Resistance from subjects can range from a person going deadweight that an officer has to carry; up higher to defensive resistance, which McCarthy said is “very, very tough to deal with” because the person is pulling away and it takes a lot of energy from the officer to maintain control.

Resistance can move up to the aggravated side with fighting, kicking, biting, etc., up to the need for deadly force, McCarthy said.

In the heat of the moment, the energy, frustration, fear and all those emotions that could affect an officer are at play and a subject’s resistance level may drop, McCarthy said. They may become more compliant and officers have to recognize that and the officer’s force level has to drop.

“We teach that. It’s hard to recognize. We’re always behind that curve. If subject does something, we have to react. It’s a short time frame, but when they can’t, that’s where we end up with excessive use of force,” McCarthy said. “We can teach, we can rehearse them and we can drill and test them and that individual officer can pass all that, but it’s still up to the individual officer to do the right thing at the right time.”

Training helps, he said, but the “first time you deal with an out of control individual is very tough. You have to deal with your own emotions, fears, ‘am I going to get hurt, am I going home and what am I going to have to do to prevent this person from hurting themselves, me or the public. It’s very tough.”

All use of force training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy and locally, the officials said, is based on federal and state law and what the courts have determined over time.

In Great Falls, the use of force decreased during 2019 over 2018 and 2017.

Overall, physical restraints/strikes, firearm threatened use and Taser are the majority of force used, according to the GFPD’s 2019 annual report. Taser use was similar in 2018 and 2019, but other types of force decreased.

In 2019, there were 163 instances of force; in 2018, there were 245 and in 2017, there were 250, according to the annual report.

In 2019, there were 3,914 criminal charges filed and the average that needed force was 4.2 percent, according to the report. In 2018, there were 5,633 criminal charges filed so it was 4.3 percent and in 2017, there were 7,651 criminal charges filed at 3.2 percent needing force, according to the report.

The annual review also includes data on race demographics and traffic stops.

The data chart is below.

biased-based profiling review

Page from the 2019 Great Falls Police Department annual report.

In an email to City Commissioners, City Manager Greg Doyon said that he reviewed complaints against GFPD over the last five years and there had been a downward trend.

In his email, Doyon said, “depending on the nature/scope of the complaint, there are various options for the public to have a matter investigated. Most complaints are reviewed internally. Complex complaints or where the department and/or complainant does not want the GFPD to investigate itself can be performed by the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department, MT Highway Patrol, Police Officer Standards and Training (officer certification), State Department of  Criminal Investigations, FBI and even the Secret Service.”

GFPD complaints

Complaints against GFPD over the last five years, from an email from City Manager Greg Doyon to City Commissioners.

Slaughter said one of his concerns as sheriff is the appropriate escalation of force to meet the threat quickly.

“We’re always reacting to what they’re doing,” he said.

Another factor to training is government budgets.

Slaughter said that when budgets are tights, training is one of the first things to get cut.

“There’s a reason training is so important,” he said.

But they also have to prioritize training. Much of it is training for high risk, low frequency incidents, but they also need training on writing reports, interviewing, evidence collection and handling is also important since that’s the bulk of what they do.

“All these pressures and different things pulling on law enforcement,” Slaughter said.

The community saw issues with violent crime so CCSO and GFPD partnered to create a task force, but that also requires training.

Slaughter said he constantly hears from the community about the need for more law enforcement officers, and CCSO has added some in the last few years, and the GFPD chief has requested funding for new officers in every budget since at least 2013, though few of those requests have been funded.

Slaughter said he’d rather have a smaller agency of well trained deputies than a large agency of poorly training deputies. The cost of a new deputy ranges from $116,000 to $120,000 the first year, he said, since it includes salary, benefits and all deputies need a patrol vehicle. After that, the salary and benefit costs continue, as well as training and increasing salaries with time in service.

Slaughter said the most recent collective bargaining agreement for deputies includes incentives for deputies to get certifications and well rounded training.

Slaughter said of the current discussion about police reform that “there is no law that is going to change this, this is people dealing with people.”

He echoed McCarthy and said that a lot of it based on upbringing and training can enhance good behavior.

Slaughter said that if the federal government wanted to fund something in response to the protests and calls for police reform, it would allow federal grants to include overtime costs for use of force training and allow communities to set up programs that are appropriate for their communities, and create more grants for training versus more people and equipment.

Slaughter said that when they deploy SWAT teams, the chance of use of force drops dramatically, because the teams are highly training and bring along a crisis negotiator, but they can’t afford to do that for all calls.

The priority of life is citizens, deputies and the suspect, he said.

“We want to get everyone out of it safely,” Slaughter said.

Capt. John Schaffer of GFPD, said their department launched a policy review following the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. and the protests there.

The department did a three year policy review and completely revamped it to be more reflective of the community, Schaffer said.

GFPD also implemented defensive tactics training to end resistance earlier so situations don’t escalate to higher levels of force. Schaffer said it might look bad to a civilian, but it can resolve the situation faster with everyone surviving.

“The faster we end conflict, the better we’re gonna be,” he said.

In 2013, the school resource officers were told to keep track of their counseling time, which they continue to do. In 2015, they started tracking how many people were counseled and how many were cited.

Schaffer said that in Great Falls, the SRO program works.

“Our kids stay out of the criminal justice system 90 percent of the time if they have interaction with an SRO,” he said.

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And those that don’t can go into the juvenile diversion program instead of going to court, he said.

Of those students who get cited, 96 percent don’t reoffend, Schaffer said.

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Last year, the ACLU of Montana released a report finding that Native American students faced higher discipline rates. The Great Falls school district took issue with some of the findings but also said it was reviewing the report to improve the SRO program.

The city and county also operate a Crisis Response Team, which includes social workers, counselors and mental health professionals, that respond to calls when needed.

Typically, a responding officer or deputy will determine whether to call in CRT, based on their familiarity with a person or situation, details from dispatch, or the reality on the ground when they arrive, he said.

Schaffer said sometimes a person is taken to the hospital if they’re a danger to themselves or others, but they try to find community solutions.

“Most people are jut in crisis,” he said. “We see if we can get them through the crisis and get them back to normal.”

According to data from the Cascade County Crisis Response Team from Sept. 1, 2017 to May 21, 2020, of the total calls they responded to, 171, or 90 percent, were diverted from jail. The cost of a day in county jail is $74.83 and the average stay is 3-10 days, so the team estimates the savings from a CRT response is $38,387 to $127,959, according to the same data sheet.

[READ: Cascade County Crisis Response Team data sheet]

Of the total calls, 119, or 63 percent, were diverted from the emergency room at an estimated cost savings of $59,500 to $119,000, according to the data sheet. About half, or 107, were diverted from both jail and the hospital, according to the data sheet.

The Center for Mental Health runs the team and maintains the phone line, but it includes any mental health professionals in the community that want to participate.

The city just applied for a $750,000 three-year grant through the U.S. Department of Justice for a mental health police officer, mental health treatment court coordinator, funding for the court and CRT.

Judge Steve Bolstad of the Great Falls Municipal Court and other city staff launched the mental health court in 2018 but it has a limited capacity due to limited resources.

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If the city receives the grant, they’d be able to take the program from five to 20 participants. He said their hoping to know sometime this summer.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive grant to try to address mental health needs in Great Falls,” Schaffer said. “It would be huge, it would change the way we do things with mental health.”

Schaffer echoed what McCarthy and Slaughter said in that law enforcement is a local issue.

“Great falls is unique,” he said. “We respond to what our community says. That’s the biggest thing for us.”

Slaughter and McCarthy also said that Montana is different that some areas that are seeing breakdowns in relationships between law enforcement and the public in that here, they live in the communities where they work.

Slaughter said that in some large cities, cops can’t afford or aren’t required to live in the cities they police, creating an us versus them mindset.

In Cascade County, “we all live in the city or county in which we work,” he said. “We look at people as our neighbor, not a suspect. It’s community policing. I think that is the huge thing.”

It’s why CCSO has been bringing back the resident deputy program, he said, in the towns around the county.

McCarthy of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy said, “all the trainers live here. The officers live here.”

He said he doesn’t want bad cops pulling over his wife or his granddaughters and that’s on his mind while training Montana law enforcement officials.

“Occasionally bad ones slip though and we do what we can do get rid of them, because we live here too,” McCarthy said.