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Helena continues review of police department operations

Posted at 12:44 AM, Aug 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-27 12:26:16-04

Helena city leaders held a presentation Wednesday evening to give more insight into how the Helena Police Department operates.

The meeting was part of a larger review into HPD policies and procedures. The Helena City Commission decided to conduct the review earlier this summer, in response to the nationwide discussions about police reform.

HPD Chief Steve Hagen led Wednesday’s presentation. He began by going through HPD’s hiring process and training for new officers. Prospective officers must go through extensive background checks, interviews with a community board, and psychological evaluations to determine whether they are suitable for the job.

The department currently has 48 sworn officers, with several more positions currently unfilled.

Hagen also showed data on the department’s calls for service, arrests and use of force. Over the last five years, HPD responded to nearly 150,000 calls, with the call volume increasing slightly each year.

Hagen said officers conducted more than 19,600 traffic stops over that period. The data included more than 10,400 arrests – though Hagen said that included some cases where someone received a citation, but was not taken into custody.

In addition, HPD reported 420 uses of force between 2015 and 2019. Hagen said those included when an officer used or threatened to use a firearm or stun gun, or used other items like a baton, pepper spray, or a restraining device. However, he said HPD has not had one of its officers fire a gun toward another person since 2011.

The data also included breakdowns by race. It showed the number of traffic stops was fairly close to each group’s share of the local population. However, a larger share of arrests and uses of force – what City Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin termed “more intense” interactions with law enforcement – involved Native Americans or Black people.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 2.3% of Lewis and Clark County’s population was American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.5% was Black. Hagen’s data said 9.8% of HPD’s uses of force involved Native Americans, and 4% involved Black people.

Hagen acknowledged that data, but said they will need to have more in-depth consideration of each individual case to determine what might be the reasons for it.

“It is more than data that we have to look at; we have to look at individual circumstances as well,” he told MTN.

Hagen also spent much of his presentation talking about the department’s challenges in responding to mental health-related issues. He identified at least 3,893 of those responses over the last five years, but said the actual number is significantly higher than that. The number of mental health calls rose steadily each of those years.

Hagen said he understands law enforcement is not always the right response in these cases, but said they have traditionally been the ones called in. He praised efforts like the announcement of a mobile health crisis response team, a partnership between Lewis and Clark Public Health and St. Peter’s Health, that would allow behavioral health specialist to respond alongside law enforcement to help assess a person in crisis. However, he said they will only be a “drop in the bucket,” and that it will take a much wider effort to find a way to solve the underlying issues.

“There needs to be enforcement and intervention; it’s not just enforcement, it’s not just intervention,” Hagen said. “If we really want to help and build a stronger community, it’s going to take a community to fix a lot of the issues that are present in everyday life in Helena.”

Hagen said mental health support is important not only for people in the community at large, but for law enforcement officers themselves – who often experience traumatic events during their work but may not feel comfortable approaching someone to talk about them.

Wednesday’s presentation was the first in a broader look at HPD operations. City leaders moved up discussions of one particular aspect of the department – the School Resource Officer program – ahead of the start of the school year. Commissioners voted to extend the SRO program for one more year after a series of public meetings last month.

Interim City Manager Melinda Reed said they expect to hold another presentation like this next month, then continue the review process with working groups that can begin putting together recommendations.