A Thursday morning incident between law enforcement officers and a group of people hanging around the IGA Grocery Store on 1st Avenue North in Great Falls sparked some controversy after details were shared on Facebook by Nerissa Neumann. She wrote: "It was truly heartbreaking to watch these men suffer harassment for being homeless."
According to Neumann’s post, three GFPD officers pulled up to the intersection near the IGA and jumped out of an unmarked vehicle. A few men who were allegedly homeless were sitting on the corner. While the officers were speaking with one of the men, another urinated in his pants. That man was given a ticket for disorderly conduct.
Neumann says one officer came over and asked questions about what had happened. Neumann also said that one of the men was put in handcuffs for 15 minutes before being released.
Great Falls Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Doug Otto gave the following explanation of the encounter:
- “Our Directed Enforcement Team, which is three officers and a sergeant, they’re responsible for a wide range of duties. One of them is enforcing the laws and issues in the brick area, the Business Improvement District side, and they try to regularly go down. Especially during the summer months, we have problems with, some are transient, some have residences, but they come down and they have open containers in public. So, one, that’s illegal. That’s against city ordinance to have an open container, within the city of Great Falls, of alcohol. They have repeat issues, we also have many of them that will loiter in certain areas, they will urinate in public. Basically they cause issues for the health and wellness of other individuals in the city itself. So, they go down and they address these issues, and that was the case yesterday. They were out doing some enforcement efforts within the brick area and they came across this group...watching from a distance, in an unmarked vehicle, which is perfectly acceptable by law, for us to be able to do, could see an individual with an open container drinking, and that’s when they went up to deal with that issue. While they’re dealing with it, another individual shows up. This individual is on probation and he is a known individual that likes to assault police officers. That was the individual who ended up in handcuffs for, according to the (Facebook) post, for about 15 minutes, until his probation officer got there, they did the breathalyzer test, everything was fine, he went on his way with no charges. In the process of all this, another individual that was there began to urinate in public. Unzipped his pants and was urinating in public. The video shows a very small piece of this, but he was zipping up his pants. The officers watched this occur while they were trying to work with all the individuals there. There was another person there that wandered across the street to the Zip Trip, and ended up, in the past has been trespassed from that establishment. The things that not captured that these officers used discretion and made a good choice on is, the person came back, they explained ‘you know you’re trespassed from there,’ he was upset about that. So, our officers went over and talked to him (store owner) and he said ‘yeah he doesn’t cause any problems anymore, we don’t have any issue with him being there. They removed the trespass, he didn’t get a ticket, they made a discretionary call.”
According to Lt. Otto, that intersection and some surrounding areas are frequented by people that some might consider disruptive to the community. The city of Great Falls does prohibit the consumption, sale, or distribution of alcoholic beverages in public places without a special event permit.
As for the unmarked vehicle, the only piece of legislation pertaining to the legality of completely unmarked vehicles came through the Montana Legislature in the mid 2000s. The proposed bill was titled: "An act prohibiting covert enforcement of certain traffic laws” in November 2004. The bill bounced around drafts, committees, and hearings, only to eventually die in a standing committee in April 2005. That means that, as Lt. Otto notes above, there are no applicable laws in Montana - state, federal, or otherwise - prohibiting the use of unmarked vehicles by law enforcement.
“The officers were fully within their legal bounds to do this, this is something that we have worked closely with the Business Improvement District to make sure that our officers are present down there to deal with these issues because we have had predominant issues of loitering, alcohol consumption, open container, issues with that type of disorderly conduct where people are urinating in public and whatnot,” Otto explained. “We do take it serious and we work to make sure that problem doesn’t happen.”
Otto also encouraged members of the public who are curious or concerned about the actions of the GFPD to call him first and ask for information. The non-emergency number for the Great Falls Police Department is 406-727-7688.