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Billings police chief says Sunday protest a success, talks police policy

Posted at 3:04 PM, Jun 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-09 17:04:38-04

Other than a few verbal confrontations, Billings protesters and counter-protesters at the George Floyd demonstration on Sunday were peaceful and non-violent, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said Monday.

"One thing is, you can disagree without being disagreeable, and that’s what happened yesterday. You had a wide variety of opinions on things, but everybody respected each other and that was key to maintaining a safe and productive event. And that didn’t require us to intervene in any way, shape or form," St. John said.

The protest on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn drew about 1,000 protesters who were chanting and raising signs. They eventually spilled into the streets, marching the block around Billings City Hall multiple times.

Across the street, groups of counter protesters made up of local motorcycle groups, militia groups and other Second Amendment advocates gathered. Many were openly carrying firearms.

Other than a few verbal confrontations between the two groups, St. John said officers saw no violence and made no arrests at the protest.

“But at the end of the day, cooler heads prevailed and nothing ended up turning into something more serious. Which certainly could have happened with the number of people we had down there, and the different factions that were represented," St. John said.

St. John categorized the counter protesters under the general term of Second Amendment advocates. He said there were members of the local militia, along with members of the Horde and Galloping Goose motorcycle groups open carrying.

"They’ve been around for many, many years so those are the two that we saw primarily that were here in town. It is not unusual for them to be in and around Billings riding around," St. John said.

The verbal confrontations between the groups mostly occurred on Broadway Avenue while the protest was making the march around City Hall, St. John said.

Days before the event, Billings police had contact with both the protesters and counter-protester groups. That's part of the reason why St. John thought the protest stayed peaceful.

“I think the key to our success is the relationships that we have built, not only with the community but with our other law enforcement partners. When you have an event take place like this, or something that’s even much more spontaneous, it’s too late to make friends and make relationships in the community," St. John said.

The Billings police received help from other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, St. John said.

St. John and Billings Mayor Bill Cole called for a peaceful demonstration three days before the event. The chief said his officers were prepared with contingency plans if the protest got out of hand, but that's not something the authorities wanted to see.

“The other thing that I want to remind people is that we live here too. This is our community. We call it home, we raise our families. Our kids go to school here and we certainly want the best across the board for everybody in every way. We’re stakeholders as well. When you combine all of that with what took place yesterday, you had an outstanding event, and I couldn’t be prouder," St. John said.

There were about seven bicycle police mixing among the protest with more officers watching from atop the roofs of neighboring downtown businesses.

After the successful, peaceful George Floyd and police brutality protest in Billings, the country at large is having tough conversations with its leaders and authorities about how to move forward and heal.

St. John said his department is open to conversations about its policies and procedures, including the way in-custody deaths are investigated through internal affairs and coroners inquests, a different procedure than some other states that have a grand jury.

“We pride ourselves on being contemporary, and a lot of the things that you hear on the national scene about police reform, we do. We have use-of-force reporting. We don’t allow chokeholds. We have accountability," St. John said.

St. John said he would like to continually educate the public about police policy. He mentioned how people sometimes have frustrations about the amount of transparency police can give during an investigation.

"People want everything that we do, when in fact state law precludes criminal justice information from just being handed out. So that of course makes people think you’re hiding something,” St. John said.

Police often keep investigative information away from the public and media to not tip off the criminals about how much the police know.

"Those are communications and discussions that I’d love to have with the community to make sure they understand that we’ve got things in place. We’re doing it right. Are we without sin? Absolutely not. We’re a large organization with 24/7 operation, we make mistakes. But we thoroughly investigate them, we hold our people accountable to whatever problem there is and we move on. So that’s the discussion that we have,” St. John said.