MTN Investigates


Is racial profiling a problem with Billings police?

Is racial profiling a problem with Billings police?
Posted at 3:11 PM, Jul 15, 2020

A movement to defund police forces is growing across the country, after outrage and protest by thousands of communities demanding justice for Black lives.

The idea is controversial. Some believe it's too drastic, while others believe it’s a straight forward path to put checks on police nationwide.

Police departments are under a microscope for how they interact with people of color, particularly after the death of George in the hands of Minneapolis, Minn., police a month ago. More are now asking, are police in general using too much force? And are officers targeting members of their community based on the color of their skin?

In Billings, those with the Billings Police Department say no.

“This department is not engaged in racial bias policing,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department.

Wooley says he can prove this claim, because of data the department collects and tracks every year. It's data categorized on demographics, gender, types of crimes and race, among other things.

“We are not consistently using excessive force in any group or category. We police ourselves, and we have policies and practices, set up to continually improve upon a professional organization,” said Wooley.

So MTN Investigates checked up on those claims.

Billings police discuss use of force, racial profiling in wake of Floyd protests

Data sourced by Billings police shows the department made roughly 4,422 arrests in 2019. The majority of those arrested were white individuals at 58 percent. The data shows of those arrests; 28 percent were Native Americans and 5 percent were Black.

Montana and Billings are mostly white, so we dug deeper into the numbers provided by Billings police to find a correlation between arrest numbers and use of force reports.

In 2019, there were 131 reports where use of force was used by an officer on a member of the public.

According to Billings police data, 59 percent of those reports involved someone who was white, 27 percent involved a Native American, and 5 percent involved a Black person.

When the data is laid side by side with the number of arrests Billings police made in 2019, and the makeup of the Billings community is taken into account, the data does correlate with the number of people arrested and categorized.

Furthermore, Wooley says, much of the work officers do is reactive, not proactive, policing, meaning they’re often busy responding to emergencies rather than doing “beat work.”

In 2019, 78 percent of traffic stops were with white individuals, 9 percent involved Native Americans and 3 percent involved Black individuals.

He says traffic stops provide the best data set to track who’s being pulled over and who isn’t and what race those individuals belong to.

“The best way to take a measure of whether or not a department is is engaged in bias-based policing is to kind of stratify those numbers a little bit, and look at what those law enforcement involvements look like,” said Wooley.

Billings police conduct an official review of its code of conduct and use of force policies every year. It was most recently done in May.

“If we are made aware of a complaint, even third party, about unconstitutional or racial bias in our department, we investigate those immediately,” said Wooley.

Data shows, of the 192 complaints made against officers in 2019, 101 were department-initiated.

“Our department internally initiates and sustains more complaints against its officers from internal complaints than it does from external complaints, which is a way of showing that we are policing ourselves,” said Wooley.

The department is not required by law to track these numbers.

“We're listening. Yes, you want accountability, you want a professional police force,” said Wooley.

But he says they track the data anyway, to provide accountability and transparency in its enforcement.

“Our officers are human. They're going to make mistakes, we’ve made mistakes in the past….It's likely that we're going to make mistakes again in the future,” he said. “Racial bias policing is absolutely not allowed, it's illegal, and it's not allowed in our department.”

The Billings Police Department adopted the “8 can’t wait” use of force policies years ago.

This initiative includes putting maneuvers such as intervention, the ban of shooting at moving vehicles, warning before shooting and comprehensive reporting, just to name a few into policy.

The “8 Can’t Wait” guide is a nationwide campaign targeted at bring change to police departments.