Civil Rights Committee Looks Into Allegations Of Bias By Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice System

Mar 28, 2018

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John says any type of discrimination or biased based policing is illegal.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

A Montana civil rights panel wants to learn more about alleged discrimination that affects Native Americans when it comes to the criminal justice system and interactions with law enforcement. Billings Police Chief Rich St. John says he looks forward to discussing this issue in Montana’s largest community Thursday in Hardin.

Gwen Kircher, chair of Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says the hearing is a follow-up to the August 2016 meeting. She says additional questions for law enforcement and prosecutors arose from the testimony from that meeting.

“A lot of people are still subject to having racial slurs spoken to them by the authorities and officials,” says Kircher, “So these are things we need to investigate to get them changed.”

“Any type of discrimination or biased based policing is illegal,” says St. John. He says the BPD has policies and procedures that deal with this issue.

“We discipline our people,” he says.  “If you look at our annual report you will see that we police our own. And we don’t have a lot of violations, if any, to this subject.”

St. John says if complaints are filed and if the investigation finds the complaint to be true, officers are disciplined. This includes for not being “as nice and polite as they could be on some instances,” he says.

The key is to file a complaint, he says, and BPD has numerous ways to do that, including anonymously. St. John says all will be investigated, but “If I don’t know about it, there’s nothing I can do.”

Gwen Kircher, chair of the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

“I have worked with Chief St. John,” says Kircher. “And he has been trying very hard to get things as they should be and any complaint that has ever been filed against the Billings Police Department - that I have been aware of - has shown that they have done exactly as they should and there was no racial bias.”

Still, Kircher says the testimony from the 2016 meeting brought up concerns about racial profiling, racial slurs and the disproportionate number of Native Americans who are cited or jailed.

St. John says the numbers need to be put into context.  He says sometimes the same people are being arrested multiple times and that can skew the numbers.

“Everybody understands we have a serious problem downtown with our serial inebriates and our transient population that is exacerbated by no room at the jail, none at the hospital,” he says. “We also know from our work with the Native American coalition, Community Innovations, that we originally identified approximately 70-80 individuals that we are dealing with on a daily basis were tribal members.”

He says glancing at the numbers, 30% of those Native American arrests are not Billings residents. He says while the subject of this hearing is border town discrimination, “We have border town crime.”

“If you’re asking whether I am picking on one particular race, absolutely not,” St. John says. “We are faced with certain activities that we need to deal with. If somebody commits a crime, like I said, it doesn’t matter what your race or gender is we’re going to investigate whether an arrest is warranted so be it.”

The hearing at Hardin Middle School begins at 9 a.m. with a smudging ceremony followed by the panel presentations. The public can submit written questions in advance to the panelists.

The panels are to include members of law enforcement from Billings, and Yellowstone, Rosebud and Big Horn Counties, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief.

Public testimony will be taken after the panels.

Meeting:  March 29, 2018,Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Location:  Hardin Middle School, 611 5th Street W, Hardin, Montana.

Kircher says if people are unable to attend or submit their testimony in person, they can listen in via a telephone conference line.

Public Call Information:  1-800-293-6960, Conference ID: 498 5239

Written comments can also be submitted to: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 300 North Los Angeles Street, Suite 2010, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Fax: (213) 894-0508

Email: Angelica Trevino at atrevino@usccr.gov