HARDIN — On July 15, a massive dust storm swept across I-90 near Hardin, causing blackout conditions and a 21-vehicle pile-up, which killed six people, including two children.
As emergency responders from multiple agencies responded, Hardin's police department never received a call.
"We didn't know anything about it," Hardin Police Chief Donald Babbin said Tuesday. "We were here and available to assist."
Babbin says it was a standout incident in a period of silence from Big Horn County dispatch, which had stopped connecting calls for service to the Hardin Police Department in April 2022.
"The county attorney decided to disrupt the dispatching service through the sheriff's office with us," Babbin said. "They discontinued dispatching the City of Hardin Police Department."
This came shortly after the Bighorn County Special Deputy Attorney David Sibley filed charges against Babbin and a Hardin police officer related to an incident on March 6, 2022, at the Town Pump. Officer Calen Curtin allegedly punched a man in the back of the head twice while trying to take the man into custody. Babbin was facing charges of intimidation against the man when he subsequently tried to file a complaint.
Ultimately, charges against Babbin and Curtin were dropped—and with them went the calls for services from Big Horn County dispatch.
"There was a few weeks that we didn't have any calls for service at all," Babbin said.
The Hardin Police Department is a relatively new force, getting off the ground in 2021 after a survey of Hardin residents by the City Council said they wanted more law enforcement in the community.
While they had previously received 911 calls from dispatch, when the relationship iced over, Hardin police started using an alternative, seven-digit number routed through a private dispatch service in Georgia. They also initiated text 911 services, which they plan to keep in place permanently.
Babbin said they're currently averaging more than 500 calls for service a month.
The ability to stop dispatching calls comes from a legal loophole, Hardin City Attorney Jordan Knudsen says, created by a 2017 change to Montana Code Annotated.
"In 2017, the Montana Legislature passed a lot of Next Generation 9-1-1 statutes and in the meantime, a small statute got removed, which required public safety answering point, the agencies that answer 9-1-1 calls, to notify all law enforcement agencies in the area of the calls that were coming in," Knudsen said.
Knudsen says he thinks the statute was removed in error.
In front of lawmakers now is a bill to put that statute back in—House Bill 236, carried by Rep. Paul Green, a Republican from Hardin.
"I have a passion and a heart for the people in the community I serve and their safety should never be a bargaining tool," Green told MTN Tuesday in a discussion about the bill.
HB 236 was heard in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 19, with Knudsen providing testimony. Opposition to the bill rose out of language requiring service requirements and agreements around additional compensation. That language was struck out of the bill through amendments and passed out of the committee.
Knudsen said the most important part of the bill remained. The language of the bill reads:
"A public safety answering point must immediately notify a public safety agency with jurisdictional responsibilities of a request for service in the agency's jurisdiction, even when the answering point does not dispatch emergency services, and transfer or relay emergency communications to that public safety agency."
Before the bill was introduced, relations between the City of Hardin Police, Big Horn County Sheriff's Office, and Big Horn County Attorney's Office started to thaw, following the election of a new sheriff and a new county attorney.
With the relationships improving, Babbin is hopeful.
"As a law enforcement agency in a small town with a sheriff's department, we need to work together," Babbin said.
"Ultimately, our main goal is to provide quality police services to the entire community."