Better Than Angry Residents and Expensive Lawsuits
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
he Montana Supreme Court just ruled that a former Gallatin County deputy must face a felony charge for choking a restrained and handcuffed 17-year-old girl (in 2011) and throwing her against a wall while she was in custody in Bozeman. Documents charging the deputy say his alleged offense was recorded on video.
Really—a handcuffed girl, the kind of handcuffs that attach to a restraining belt? The deputy is innocent until proven guilty in the courts, but it doesn’t work that way in the court of public opinion. So the victim would not just be the teenage girl, but Gallatin law enforcement as its image gets tarnished, taxpay-ers covering the cost of a likely lawsuit, and the community as a whole.
In nearby Livingston, we cannot print all the stories that have circulated around town historically, and a few recently, regarding the Livingston Police, in part because undoubtedly many would be unreli-able. Those stories have circulated for decades, most related to admini-strations that disappeared long ago.
With the arrival of Police Chief Darren Raney in more recent years, it is the opinion of this publication, and through direct experience, that we saw an improvement over certain past administrations, the activities of which, according to local lore, and not in recent years, supposedly involved corruption. We do not report here that corruption took place, only that people believe it did, and that the impression endures.
As this editor took the reins of this publication (not recently), the Pioneer was crafting a story on meth abuse. We spoke to various people familiar with that side of life who knew of a prominent meth dealer and details that could identify him.
With such knowledge, and we will avoid specifics, a person related to this process called the most senior official in local law enforcement one could think of, and asked if that official would be interested in knowing the details that would identify the meth dealer—again, long ago.
That senior official’s response was, “Not really.”
At the time, various wags offered handy explanations for that response, most of them cynical, and some related to earlier beliefs that police officers, decades ago, committed burglaries and were involved in other forms of corruption—again, we are reporting perceptions of people who lived in Livingston all or much of their lives, not corruption itself.
Let’s though place rumors where they belong, give the police of days- gone-by the benefit of the doubt, and say that their reputation was maligned. Wouldn’t better police relations with the public have gone a long way toward quashing the rumors and bad impressions?
Not that long ago, Glenn Farrell was known around Livingston as a community oriented police officer, exhibiting a combination of reserved friendliness and proactive concern (frequently on foot) that made him approachable, effective, and a welcome sight around town. Farrell could be seen doing his walk throughs at downtown emporiums, where trouble sometimes erupted, turning heads with his sheer size, offering reassurance to those who wanted a quiet evening (and to tavern owners) and sending a clear message to those who did not. Often, bartenders and proprietors called Farrell by his first name and knew him personally.
Our experience professionally and personally with Chief Raney has also been positive. He goes out of his way to be helpful and approachable. Although the recent police dog attack on a cook in a tavern was horrible, he addressed complaints and adjusted the K-9 policy (see cover story), taking into account the tavern owner’s suggestions, and, we would think, the victim.
Chief Raney may have also considered that news of the incident went national, as opinion writers weighed in online, making Living-ston and the LPD look pretty bad. Among the writers commenting on the incident was the famous legal expert and Cable TV talking head Jonathan Turley (see this issue).
We would add that our direct experience with Officer Emmanuel was also positive, that he conducted himself in a courteous and profess-ional manner during an encounter, being helpful and thorough.
Public perception though, at least of those still fuming (understandably) about the police dog attack, is often the opposite. That it is may have to do with the fact that few downtown merchants, tavern owners, barkeeps and residents seem to know police officers on the force personally, and that the one they do know about has been a problem the city is trying to rid itself of through the courts.
So here’s a suggestion to the LPD, the premise being that word of mouth spreads rapidly in a small town, and rarely telegraphs positive actions, your daily service and commitment, but amplifies your worst mistakes, compromising your reputation and image. On behalf of those who have lived in Livingston for decades, or their entire lives, who work downtown or own businesses, those would offer some common sense and who question small town police officers employing body armor, tazers, and a police dog—get out of your vehicles and introduce yourselves personally to proprietors and managers, shake hands, develop rapport, cultivate positive relation-ships, emphasizing that we are all on the same side.
Most people complaining right now, and some of them are angry, knew or appreciated Glenn Farrell. They remember him and his walk throughs, because he apparently knew the value of personal interaction. Like him, apply the basics of life to your work, the basics of good relationships, and realize that people can fear and suspect those they do not know, especially when they are armed, escorting a police dog, and sometimes making caustic remarks (we are told) to people they have inadvertently wronged.
People are now afraid to speak up, they have said, for fear of being targeted. That is an impression among certain residents, and it is an impression that needs attention.
Remarks made by officers to the obviously innocent have been a problem—such as those allegedly made this summer, as they raided the wrong house, AR-15s drawn, then addressed their victims’ shock and trauma by saying they were lucky they did not send in the dog.
Police officers should be mindful that news travels fast in a small town (and online, see story this issue) and act accordingly, that making such remarks is unacceptable conduct for a peace officer, and that many see this not as an isolated incident but part of a pattern. Word should come from the top that such attitudes and comments are unacceptable and harmful to the police department and community as a whole.
In the case of Mark Demaline, the innocent cook attacked by the police dog, he told the Livingston Enterprise an officer told him he should be grateful the police saved him the cost of an ambulance. The remark was reportedly made while giving him a ride to the hospital, after the dog brutalized his upper thigh, as he was traumatized and bleeding in the patrol car.
Official denials aside, Dema-line’s account regarding the ambu-lance remark is the more credible. And we have heard other similar reports that do not reflect well on the department (in part being addressed by legal actions related to a problem officer). We do not, however, believe it fair to tarnish the LPD as a whole on the basis of these incidents.
We suggest actions be taken on the part of the LPD to improve community relations, not through public relations (PR), but deliberate human interaction, as a matter of genuine intent, while at the same time forbidding unprofessional tendencies and exchanges. We, the people, after all, pay the price for police actions—salaries, benefits, pensions, and for pending lawsuits related to the two incidents cited above.
Given Chief Raney’s track record as a responsive public servant, this would be a good time for him to rigorously enforce policies that prevent both negative actions from tarnish-ing the force as a whole and taxpayers bearing the costs of expensive lawsuits.