HELENA — Lewis and Clark County leaders came together Wednesday to answer some of the public’s questions about policing in the county.
The county commission and Sheriff Leo Dutton held a community address, aimed at giving people a better idea of how the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office operates.
Commissioner Susan Good Geise said they’ve heard from many people since the start of the nationwide protests that followed George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. She said they organized Wednesday’s event to give the public a better idea of LCSO’s current practices, so everyone can be on the same page before any discussions about possible additional action.
“It may be that further conversations need to take place, but the purpose of this meeting is to make those conversations more meaningful, because it is time to get this right,” said Geise.
Dutton said his deputies go through extensive training on issues like avoiding racial profiling, the proper use of force and how to de-escalate situations. He said, in the last 10 to 15 years, they’ve made additional changes – bringing in body cameras, collecting data to look at racial disparities, discouraging the use of chokeholds and emphasizing the rights of the public.
“We will do our jobs correctly; we won’t cut corners,” said Dutton.
Dutton said his office takes earning the public’s trust seriously.
“We evaluate what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and we evaluate when they call and say there was excessive force,” he said.
Commissioners also talked about efforts the county has already made to direct more money toward human services and mental health care. Commissioner Jim McCormick said they had provided about $400,000 a year to a variety of health and support organizations. Commissioner Andy Hunthausen highlighted efforts to have more mental health specialists assist in emergency situations.
Geise said many people who have contacted the county calling for “defunding” law enforcement don’t want to eliminate those agencies, but want to see resources diverted into other services. She said she believes the county is already moving in that direction.
Leaders said there is always room for improvement in policing, and that they will keep looking at ways to make their policies and procedures better.
“I can’t make Minneapolis go away,” Dutton said. “I can tell my citizens what we’ve done; I can tell my citizens we’re open for a conversation.”
Geise said the county is willing to continue these discussions on these issues going forward.
“I don’t mind robust debate; I am all about it,” she said. “But I want people to come who are really serious about looking for solutions that work for us.”