EAST HELENA — The East Helena Police Department hasn’t had a permanent chief since March 2021, and their last full-time officer departed just over a month ago. Now, city leaders have brought on the people who will be tasked with taking the department in a new direction.
“We are excited to announce a new day in the East Helena Police Department,” Mayor Kelly Harris said in a news release.
At a special meeting Monday night, the East Helena City Council named Mike Sanders as police chief, and they hired four new patrol officers.
“We’re here to rebuild and rebrand the police department,” Sanders told MTN. “We want to create an environment that’s welcoming and is based on trust.”
Sanders is a Helena native who previously worked for the Helena Police Department, then spent more than 20 years with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He currently works as an investigator with the Montana Lottery.
Sanders was previously hired as EHPD chief in September 2018. He served just four months before resigning, citing “differences in priorities and goals” in the letter announcing his departure. Now, he says Harris and the city council have taken the steps needed to get the department back on track.
“I’m a big believer that it takes a team to be successful, and I think that team is in place now,” he said.
EHPS has gone through significant turmoil. William Harrington, who succeeded Sanders as chief, resigned last March while under investigation. He later pleaded guilty to distributing child pornography in an apparently unrelated case. An outside report alleged Harrington engaged in numerous improper actions in the workplace and said city leaders didn’t do enough oversight on the department.
Harris made rebuilding the department a centerpiece of his campaign for mayor last year. After taking office in January, he asked the city council to take action to attract officers – including increasing the starting salary from $47,465 a year to $62,000 and offering signing bonuses.
Two of the new officers are already working with EHPD. The city hired Kirk Johnston as an interim chief and Ken Harris as a temporary officer, each on 30-day contracts, to cover the vacancies. The other two officers are Cliff Cox and Trent DeBoo.
Sanders says his priorities will be revising the department’s policies and procedures, getting his officers training, and building trust with the community.
“What we’re going to do the first month is we’re going to spend time out on the street, we’re going to knock on doors, we’re going to introduce ourselves,” he said. “We want to become closer to the community; we want the community to know us.”
The four patrol officers will begin work on Wednesday. Sanders’ first day on the job will be Feb. 22.