City appoints new members to Police Commission; discusses possible changes to appointment process

The July 7 City Commission agenda include two appointments to the Police Commission, which reviews all police officer applications and hears disciplinary appeals for the Great Falls Police Department.

The Police Commission includes three members appointed by the City Commission.

Montanan law requires a Police Commission and states that “in all cities and some towns, the mayor, or the manager in those cities operating under the commission-manager plan, shall nominate and, with the consent of the city council or commission, appoint three residents of such city or town who shall have the qualifications required by law to hold a municipal office therein and who shall constitute a board to be known by the name of ‘police commission.’ This section shall apply to organized police departments in every city and town of the state which have three or more full-time law enforcement officials, regardless of the form of government under which said city or town may be operating or may at any time adopt.”

According to the city, “it is recommended that at least one member of the commission be familiar with the judicial system and rules of evidence relating to court hearings.”

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One member’s term was expiring June 30, 2020 and another recently moved out of the city limits making him ineligible to serve on the city board.

During the meeting, Mayor Bob Kelly said he wanted to postpone the decision, extend the application period and discuss the process of selecting members of the Police Commission.

He asked City Attorney Sara Sexe how to go about that and she said he should make a motion indicating what he wanted to do.

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Kelly made the motion, but it failed and commissioners ultimately approved the two members recommended for appointment by the existing Police Commission. That group had interviewed the candidates in June.

Kelly said he wanted to make citizens more aware of the opportunity to serve on the Police Commission and discuss the appointment process with potentially more involvement by elected officials.

It’s the first time commissioners have raised questions publicly about how the Police Commission functions and Kelly said the question was in light of the May killing of a Black man in Minneapolis by a white police officer and the ensuing protests and calls for police reform.

Jasmine Taylor, a local activist, said she supported the delay and more discussion on the commission as well as diversity within the police force and a conversation about traffic stop data.

Commissioner Rick Tryon said it seemed “highly irregular” to change the process midstream and asked Kelly to explain his reasoning further.

Kelly said that over the last six weeks, police departments nationwide have been looked at differently and while the Great Falls Police Department was a great department, it was an opportunity to look for more transparency on the process. He said it was a reaction to events nationwide and to continue the community support of GFPD by opening “up the doors as wide as we can.”

Tryon said, “how have we not opened up the door as wide as we possibly can on this.” He said the application period had been extended and the public had been notified. He said they should proceed with these two appointments and then have discussions about changing the process as another member term will expire next year.

“This looks really bad, to me, if we do this. This would send a signal that we are going to change things midstream if we feel like it,” Tryon said.

In February, the city began the recruitment process for the Police Commission when one member moved out of the city and received two applications. GFPD recommended extending the application period open to allow for more applications. Another member’s term was set to expire June 30 and COVID hit so the city opted to advertise for the two positions and further extend the deadline to May 29. A total of seven applications were received and reviewed by the existing Police Commission. They selected five candidates to interviews, which were: Michael Cronin, Larry Gooldy II, John Hackwith, Morgan Kasuske and Michael Shell.

Two of the existing Police Commissioners met with the five applicants on June 30 and recommended John Hackwith for a three-year term through June 30, 2023 and Morgan Kasuske to the remainder of a three-year term through June 30, 2021.

Hackwith has law enforcement and military experience, but did not serve on the GFPD. Kasuske is a deputy U.S. Marshal and was an officer at GFPD for 10 years.

Commissioner Mary Moe said she believes it’s time to make a change to the board as it’s the only one that weighs in on the discipline of police officers within the city government structure.

She said that many of the applicants have law enforcement ties and that sends off alarm bells to her.

Commissioner Tracy Houck said these applicants had gone through the process and wanted to vote to have a functioning Police Commission and then would be open to discussions about the role and makeup of that board.

GFPD Chief Dave Bowen said the Police Commission typically meets four times annually to hear appeals on any discipline action against officers.

They also screen applicants, as set by statute, and since GFPD is trying to hire now, a delay would cause issues, Bowen said.

Bowen said he extended the application deadline twice since there were multiple openings and he wanted more diversity on the board, but was told he was subverting the process by doing so, an assertion he said he took offense to.

Commissioners indicated they would like further discussions on the Police Commission with Bowen to possibly adjust the appointment process.