EAST HELENA — For months, the East Helena Police Department has seen turmoil and turnover. Now, the city’s newly elected mayor says they’re working aggressively to get the department back on track
“It’s imperative for us to do it,” said Kelly Harris, who took over as mayor on Jan. 3. “We’re putting a priority on it; we’re actively engaging on it.”
EHPD’s last full-time officer resigned at the end of December. After that, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office had been covering patrols in the area for several days.
Now, though, the city has brought in a temporary police chief and officer. They began work on Monday, each on 30-day contracts.
The temporary chief, Kirk Johnston, told MTN he previously spent five years with the Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s Office. The other officer is Ken Harris – no relation to the mayor – who had worked with EHPS before and was willing to help out temporarily.
Kelly Harris said these temporary appointments will be enough for now to meet state laws that require a police department to have a chief.
EHPD has been without a chief since March, when William Harrington resigned while under investigation for an allegation of assault. He later pleaded guilty in federal court to distribution of child pornography, in an apparently unrelated case.
Harris said the department hasn’t been able to attract and retain the officers they need. In one of his first acts as mayor, he proposed increasing compensation, so they can better compete with the Helena Police Department and LCCSO.
“Make no mistake: the hiring pool for officers is the same for all three of us,” he said. “So it was my intent when I came on to fix that.”
In special meetings over the last week, the East Helena City Council approved raising the starting officer salary from $47,465 a year to $62,000 a year. They will also offer signing bonuses for new hires – $5,000 immediately for those already certified as peace officers, and an initial $2,500 for those without certification, followed by another $2,500 after they complete training and a one-year probationary period.
The council had already increased the police chief’s salary to $70,000 annually with a $5,000 bonus. They have no raised it again, to $75,000 a year and a bonus of up to $15,000.
Harris said, since the city hasn’t been paying many officers, they shouldn’t have trouble funding the increased salaries this year. He said the council will have to determine how to budget for them in future years, but he expects they will have enough in the general fund to afford them without making cuts elsewhere.
Harris was elected in November, unseating former mayor James Schell. He made restoring EHPD a centerpiece of his campaign. He told MTN that he asked residents about other alternatives, such as contracting with LCCSO to provide public safety services in the city, and he found most wanted a strong local police department.
“They wanted to know their officers, they wanted to have people when they came here to talk to them, they wanted to have a chief and officers that they knew and trusted in this community,” he said. “There’s different things that the sheriff’s department or anybody else you contract with wouldn’t be able to do.”
Harris plans to open the police department positions to applicants for two weeks this month, and he hopes to make permanent hires soon after.
“We’re aggressively seeking candidate – anybody in the state or out of the state that wants to apply – to come to what I consider the best small town in America,” he said.