BILLINGS – Prior to pitching a $22 million dollar budget, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John addressed the controversy that has lingered over the department the past three weeks after it was discovered three police officers were disciplined for having sex on the job or on city property.
“I assure you despite assertions that this department is corrupt, engages in malfeasance, and does not hold their people accountable, that is patently false. I have 189 employees who come to work every day and mostly get it right every day and to paint the entire department in that light is unfair,” St. John said at Monday’s Billings City Council meeting.
All three officers were suspended without pay. St. John explained the method of how discipline was determined.
At minimum, St. John said, the city human resources division must be consulted on disciplinary measures. At most, certain disciplinary must be approved by the city administrator.
Councilmember Penny Ronning said she took issue with how St. John defended the officers as good officers who made a mistake, but condemned their actions and said it would not be tolerated.
“I’m having a hard time putting those two together,” Ronning said. “I think we do have answers that need to be further explored.”
St. John said an investigation was followed up on and “acted on it and issued discipline.” He said the discipline guideline has “presumptive penalties” for violations of the code of ethics.
“In this particular case, because of the contract, because of the Bill of Rights, because of the limitations on our discipline, they were given the maximum that would stand up.”
“They are good officers. They do good work,” St. John said. “But they also committed these policy violations and were disciplined for it within the guidelines and rules set up the by the city of Billings.”
Councilmember Chris Friedel said it was an integrity issue, but hurt for the families of the officers.
“Moving forward, we’re going to redouble our efforts to make sure everybody understands what our expectations are,” he said.
The city has ethics training and will soon have department training.
Councilmember Larry Brewster defended St. John since he took over the position of chief 13 years ago, a time when the department had a number of misconduct claims and lawsuits against it.
“We don’t have that anymore, not since this guy took over as chief,” Brewster said. “We’ve had a really solid department. I think it’s really bad what these fellas’ behavior has done to the whole department. They’ve created a deal where every time you pass an officer, you have to wonder if they’re one of them.”
“I appreciate your hard work, Chief,” Brewster said.
St. John did apologize and took responsibility for confirming the woman’s name who the officers admitted to having sex with. She was fired for admitting to stealing drugs from the evidence facility.
“I apologize for that happening,” St. John said. “I have no other explanation other than I thought the officers’ (names) would be released and obviously that did not happen. So her name gets out there, it appears I am retaliating in retribution, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. It was a very, very unfortunate mistake on my part and I’m profoundly sorry for it.”
Following the discussion, St. John presented the Billings Police Department’s upcoming fiscal year budget, which calls for a $726,321 increase.
In 2017, police responded to 94,643 calls for service.
The main cost increase, St. John cited, is due to personnel – almost $600,000. That included full staffing of 153 officers and pay increases.
Some of the challenges the department faces are sustainable funding, increased demand of service, recruiting new officers, and the evidence facility’s future.
Meanwhile, the current Billings Fire Department budget will see a $400,000 decrease – about 2 percent. Chief Bill Rash would like to add a second assistant fire chief and a 911 shift supervisor.
The city will break even by the end of this fiscal year, but the city may consider a levy or bond in the near future.
“We have been successful in the past going to the voters for all those issues,” said Brewster, saying there would be more support if the city could present a five-year plan to voters in a levy as a roadmap to where there tax dollars would go.
“I think we could again if we make a good case for it,” he said. “I think we need to have that conversation this year at some point in this process.”
Reporting by Dustin Klemann for MTN News