It was the sociological equivalent of the perfect storm, the convergence of several growing disturbances packing a synergistic punch that walloped Missoula like a hundred-year hurricane.
It was the last weekend of July, 2000 and the Missoula Valley was broiling under near-record temperatures that were nosing above 100 degrees. Across Montana, more than 32,000 acres were already ablaze, fulfilling forecasters’ predictions that the summer of 2000 would be the worst fire season in more than half a century. On Friday, July 28, 2000 then-Governor Marc Racicot put all of Montana under a state of emergency, and within days some 10 million acres of public and private lands would be off-limits to recreational use. The air in Missoula was already filling with smoke funneling into the valley from fires across the region.
Into this smoldering hot zone rode some 500 well-armed members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, who had chosen Missoula as the site of their annual “Summer Run.” Their reputation for criminal activity, violent behavior and confrontations with police preceded them, thanks in no small part to several weeks of local media hype.
Greeting the Hells Angels on their arrival was a full contingent of Missoula-area law enforcement, supplemented by 170 police officers from more than two dozen outside agencies—including 80 officers from outside Montana—who brought with them surveillance equipment, riot gear, 49 police vehicles, two helicopters, six K-9 teams and 14 motorcycles of their own.
Based on months of FBI intelligence reports and recommendations, the Hells Angels Task Force—a special command unit established to manage the incident—made the decision that the police would maintain a high profile in town, to send a clear message to the bikers that there would be “zero tolerance” for violations of the law.
Many local residents , however, disturbed and angered by what they perceived was an excessive and unnecessarily confrontational police presence approaching that of a “police state,” took to the streets in protest. On the evenings of July 28 and29, all hell broke loose in downtown Missoula, as local citizens—some as protesters, other as drunken revelers, still others as curious onlookers—clashed with police in riot gear who were trying to maintain order.
When the dust had finally settled, 83 people had been arrested—not one of whom was a Hells Angel—one firefighter had been assaulted with a beer can, several police vehicles had been vandalized and countless citizens had felt the burning sting of police pepper spray, including Missoula Independent photographer, Chad Harder, who was downtown documenting the events at the time. In addition, a news cameraman with KPAX-TV who was filming the clashes was tackled by a police officer, wrestled to the group and handcuffed. Many of these events were documented by professional and amateur videographers and hastily compiled into a 20-minute video by University of Montana journalism student Linda Tracy.
In the weeks and months that followed, the city launched an investigation of the Hells Angels weekend, with Mayor Mike Kadas appointing a Citizens Review Committee to examine what happened, what went wrong and how such a conflagration could be prevented from happening again. On December 1, the committee released its 35-page findings, parts of which commended the police for their preparation and professionalism, others which criticized police decisions and tactics. The committee also made a number of recommendations about police policies that it felt deserved further review and revision. On April 9, the Missoula Police Department released its response to the Citizens Review Committee Report, outlining some of the changes that have been proposed, and defending its decisions.
One year later, much of the Hells Angels weekend is an unpleasant but fading memory. This week, the Independent looks back at the events of a last summer, not to point fingers or re-open old wounds, but to ask the fundamental question: How much has changed and how much has remained the same?
Use of force: To spray or not to spray?
Perhaps the most immediate change to come out of last year’s conflagration was the retirement at the end of December of Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson after more than 24 years on the force. Although his departure was never explicitly linked to the Hells Angels affair, few would argue that this widely popular police chief was angered and frustrated that the Missoula community wasn’t more appreciative of his department’s efforts in preparing for what it perceived was a very real and imminent threat to public safety. Since his departure, Lawrenson—who now works for Montana Rail Link—has declined repeated requests for interviews with the Missoula Independent.
Likewise, Bob Weaver and Rusty Wickman, the new police chief and assistant police chief, respectively, of the Missoula Police Department, did not wish to discuss the specific events of last year, except to point out some of the policy changes that have since been proposed, including those that address the use of force, civil disturbances and the department’s official complaint procedures. “Right now they are not policy,” notes Weaver. “But they will become policy very shortly.”
In light of the Citizens Review Committee Report, the Missoula Police Department undertook an in-depth review of its standard operating procedures in a number of areas, specifically as they pertain to the use of force and the deployment of Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray, more commonly known as pepper spray.
Among the changes proposed, the new policy states: “Unless it is impractical, unreasonable or dangerous to do so, a verbal warning should be given before OC is employed.” In addition, “OC may be used where…the subject has signaled his intention to actively resist the officer’s efforts to make the arrest.” (Emphasis added.) One of the complaints voiced last year was that certain individuals who were demonstrating nonviolently against the police presence—including two protesters who had clearly surrendered and were extending their arms to be handcuffed—were nonetheless pepper-sprayed. The draft policy also includes new procedures for handling a subject who have been exposed to pepper spray, including removing the subject from the scene, providing some measure of decontamination, monitoring the subject for choking or difficulty in breathing and “if the subject requests medical assistance, the officer shall immediately summon emergency medical aid.” The new policy also notes that “The effects of OC are temporary. The effects will wear off in approximately 30-45 minutes. However, attempts should be made to relieve the discomfort of the individual who has been exposed.” While this and similar statements in the Missoula PD’s report are indeed welcome—“We believe citizen involvement is a good planning resource, and in the future we will look for more ways to involve citizens and address their concerns”—in places the department’s report has an unmistakable defensiveness about it.
For example, the department strongly defends its continued use of OC and includes a five-page challenge to some of the concerns raised by the Citizen Review Committee about the potential dangers of pepper spray, including studies that refute the allegation that pepper spray has been responsible for the death of subjects in custody. (In fairness, the police response does note that pepper sprays are still not subject to government regulation.) However, the department’s defense of an FBI study on the effectiveness of pepper spray, in which an FBI agent was later charged with accepting $50,000 in bribes from the product’s manufacturer, is downright quixotic.
Civil unrest—or political protest?
One of the significant benefits to be reaped from the Hells Angels affair was a new, three-page “Civil Disturbance Policy” for the Missoula Police Department, which spells out exactly how law enforcement authorities should deal with future disturbances and political demonstrations when they arise. The policy addresses how officers should attempt to communicate with and disperse crowds, how mass arrests and detainment are to be handled, and the criteria for using chemical agents like tear gas and pepper spray, such as first ensuring that a clear path of escape exists for those who wish to flee the area.
“The department’s in good hands,” says Ward 2 Councilman Jim McGrath. “And Bob [Weaver]’s been able to implement some changes and really move the Department forward.”
That said, McGrath and others on City Council do point out that there remains work to be done on this issue.
“As a community , we have not really taken a hard look at things like political demonstrations,” says McGrath. “Throughout this whole discussion of the events of that weekend, there was very little discrimination between drunken revelry and political protest, which are completely different scenarios.”
Part of the problem, say McGrath and Ward 3 Councilman John Torma, is the enormous difficulty the City Council itself has had in coming to grips with this emotionally divisive issue. Although the city has been able to talk about when officers may don riot gear or deploy pepper spray, larger issues like the role of political demonstrations and the exact nature and role of “community policing” have largely been put on the back burner, if not ignored outright.
“Part of what some folks are concerned about is a national militarization of police forces that’s going on,” says McGrath. “Missoula is not in the forefront of that movement, so there’s a reassuring element there on the one hand, that we’re not leaping down that road. But there is a cautionary element there too, that it’s definitely a trend.”
Of equal concern, says McGrath, is “an unexpressed policy of taking news media off the scene as soon as possible to keep it from being documented. That may not be the intent, but there has not been a good acknowledgement of that. The only acknowledgement of it is the fact that the city has consistently lost all the legal cases involving those people.”
In fact, the city attorney’s office spent considerable time—and money—prosecuting Josh Lamke, the former KPAX-TV cameraman who was arrested for failing to disperse and obstructing justice. A jury later acquitted Lamke of his charges.
In the meantime, Lamke’s attorney, Alan Blakley has kept himself busy. While all of his criminal cases—most of which were misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse or obstruction of justice—have been resolved, none of his civil cases have been resolved in court. Blakley says he currently has between 10 and 15 civil suits pending against the city and county. They consist of a variety of complaints, including excessive use of force by police, false arrest and unreasonable conditions in the county detention center. (For example, some complainants have asserted that they were never provided a place to rise their eyes after being pepper-sprayed.) With so many suits outstanding, Blakely is understandably tight-lipped about his clients’ prospects, saying only, “ I have no expectations. It depends on the court system. The city and the county are reluctant to settle.” It should also be noted that despite some media reports that most of the Hells Angels defendants pled guilty, in fact many pled “no contest,” due to time and financial constraints.
Interestingly, the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was contacted by a number of Missoula residents following last year’s Hells Angels affair, is also remaining tight-lipped. Among the ACLU’s interests in the case is the question of whether the city and county violated the state constitution when it agreed to bring in law enforcement from outside the state. ACLU attorney Beth Brenneman says that while no lawsuit has been filed on this legal point, one is still under consideration, despite assertions by then-U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci that those mutual aid agreements with out-of-state agencies were within the bounds of the constitution.
Summer Run 2001
When Capt. Bob Reid of the Missoula Police Department was contacted last week by a reporter from the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader about the impending arrival of the Hells Angels “Summer Run” through Branson, he got on the horn to his brethren at the Branson Police Department. “I called them to let them know what to expect from the newspaper people,” says Reid, “and then we talked a little about what they could expect from the Angels.” According to Reid, that conversation was not an extended one. “I didn’t give them a lot of advice,” he says. “Pretty much the same stuff we got from other departments in our preparation process, and that was to stress the importance of a substantial police presence as the most effective deterrent.”
What Reid didn’t pass on to the Branson PD were the difficulties experienced by the Missoula police in crowd control. “One thing we weren’t aware of, and maybe should’ve been, is that it’s relatively easy to prepare for the Hells Angels, but not for the huge crowds that the Angels attract,” says Reid. He adds that although the small community of Branson has considerable experience in dealing with the large crowds that frequent Branson’s many theaters, most of those tourists are of “the geriatric type.” In fact, Branson has only 5,000 fulltime residents, but receives 7 million visitors annually.
Reid, who recalls feeling “terrible” the day after the big blowup in Missoula last year, had a parting wish for the Branson police: “I hope they have peace and quiet for the weekend.”
It appears that wish has been granted, as the Branson community suffered no episodes of chaos or mayhem during the final two days of last weekend’s Hells Angels run. A headline in the Springfield News-Leader last week read,
“Bikers arrive with angelic silence in Branson.”
“It went very well,” says Branson Assistant Police Chief Caroll McCullough. “We were very pleased.”
McCullough estimates the total biker presence at 350 to 400, with another 400 to 600 in the supporting entourage. There were only three arrests outside of a bar Friday night—two Angels were nabbed for assault and one for carrying a concealed weapon; all three were released on bond with charges pending—but McCullough says that in spite of a heightened level of curiosity on the part of locals and tourists, there were no Angel-citizen or police-citizen confrontations.
“The lack of problems is a direct result, I believe, of the police presence,” says McCullough of the 60-plus officers he kept on duty at any given time. “We’ve heard some accusations of overkill, but that seems to be par for the course in these things.”
Hell to print
The lingering sting when the media become part of the story
“I think this might be a really big deal,” I said, pitching a story I had witnessed the night before to my editor, Blake de Pastino. It was a hot Saturday afternoon in July in an otherwise deserted Independent newsroom, and I was trying to convey the madness I had witnessed the night before during the Hells Angels “Summer Run 2000.”
We really had no idea what Missoula was about to experience. My hope was simply to secure more space from my editor for a single-page photo story. I pulled out some photographs of police officers shoving people to the ground and threatening people with pepper spray. Although I had tasted a mere sampling of the motorcycle gang’s first improbable night in Missoula, it seemed that the story might warrant more space. He was willing to listen. For me, it began as a sleepless hour in bed the night before, the constant buzz of surveillance helicopters keeping me awake and drawing me downtown. Two opposing packs of gun-toting, patch-wearing men were drawing lines in the sand, and the absurdity of it all was just too much to resist. It reminded me in a sick way of the testosterone bloat I suffered on the football team back in high school.
When Blake saw the photographs taken Friday night, he assigned me to cover Saturday night’s events; in case things blew up, we’d run the story on the cover. The next time we spoke was Sunday afternoon, my eyes and face still burning from pepper spray blasted at me 12 hours earlier. As he asked about the experience, I lost it, crying as I shared the ugliest betrayal I had ever witnessed.
Now, wherever your allegiances lie, that July weekend must be seen as one of the bigger bummers in Missoula’s history, as anyone will readily admit who had the misfortune to be there. Of course, not everyone saw it that way. The police chief from St. George, Utah, whose handful of officers were cited by numerous Missoulians as particularly unfriendly and hostile, made no mention of the divisive impact his officers had had on our community. Instead, in a report to the St. George City Council, he called the event a successful opportunity to acquire “valuable training” in crowd control and civil disobedience skills.
Even Missoula’s police chief refused to acknowledge the possibility that any of the officers were out of line. Instead, he stated that, “In my opinion and in the opinion of all the law enforcement officers that were in Missoula County responding to the Hells Angels, we accomplished our mission with total and complete success.”
“Success,” of course, remained undefined, especially to the numerous small business owners, rubberneckers and college students on the receiving end of police actions that night. A divided community, fear of the “peacekeepers,” and an abusive exercise of power by those entrusted to appropriately use chemical agents seemed improbably far from “success.” Regardless, a year has passed since those remarkable nights, and much has changed. My editor is gone, the police chief is gone, the surveillance helicopters are gone, and the out-of-state officers are gone. And, thankfully, so too are the Hells Angels.
But the wounds remain. Missoulians staged protests against a police department that in the past had distinguished itself for peaceful, pro-active and community-based policing. At least one city council member expressed concern that a significant portion of Missoulians now harbor some fear of our police officers. This is not insignificant, and it hasn’t all gone away.
Several months ago the city prosecuted its last remaining case, a charge leveled against a young KPAX cameraman filming the events for those people fortunate enough to be sawing logs while the pepper spray was flying. The jury found him not guilty. Perhaps the jurors realized that had it not been for his efforts—and others in the media and in the general public—reports about injustices committed against our community that night might have come solely from biased sources, or not at all. Perhaps the jury recognized that the First Amendment guarantees a free press, and held sacred our right to know.
Indeed, it is the public’s right to know that forced the Indy’s hand in our coverage of those events, coverage which some charged was unduly harsh and one-sided against the police department. As our news staff scrambled to flesh out the details, we assembled an account that seemed beyond the pale of possibility in the Garden City. Actions by militarized police forces are common enough on the evening news, but for it to happen in Missoula seemed impossible.
Of course, it’s not impossible. In fact, paramilitary police actions are on the rise across the country and around the world. From Seattle to Washington, D.C., from Genoa, Italy to Missoula, new weapons are constantly being developed for use against citizens. As these weapons become more prevalent, so in turn does the frequency of their use.
“You can’t simultaneously prevent and prepare for war,” Albert Einstein warned a half century ago. Be it a new “Star Wars” missile defense system, metal batons or industrial-size cans of pepper spray, if you’ve got ’em, you’ll find a reason to use ’em. So when the Hells Angels failed to pillage our city, they forced the hand of an assembled police force fully prepared to implement its civil disobedience training. The only remaining adversary happened to be local gawkers in flip-flops and shorts, and we, the community of Missoula, suffered the brunt of it.
Upholding the shield
How a UM journalism student made legal history
Most students earning a degree in journalism are required to take at least one course that surveys the laws and ethics of their chosen profession. Not many end up testing those laws; fewer still become part of those laws’ case history. But that’s precisely what happened to Linda Tracy, who last summer took to the streets of Missoula as a videographer when the tangle of police, burly motorcyclists, and rowdy citizens came to a head. Ironically, it was Tracy, who runs her own fledgling video production company, Turtle Majik, who wound up in court, in local papers and television, and for a time in some legal hot water after the City of Missoula subpoenaed her tapes of the Hells Angels weekend. Tracy took a stand on principle—and a huge chance that Montana’s shield law, designed to protect journalists from overzealous prosecutors, would consider her experience and training as that of a professional journalist. After a protracted and high-profile legal battle, Tracy was vindicated last spring when a court threw out the city’s subpoena.
As Tracy would be the first to admit, however, the baptism by fire she received didn’t come without its’ costs. “I get stared at in public now sometimes,” says Tracy. Beyond the unwanted notoriety that came with the experience, Tracy also faced legal bills that added up very quickly—to the tune of $45,000 to $50,000. Suddenly, a college education had become an even more expensive proposition. Fortunately, those sympathetic to Tracy’s plight came to her financial aid. The vast majority of her lawyer’s fees were picked up by a collection of professional trade organizations, supportive citizens, and efforts on behalf of students and professors at UM. Sipping coffee on a rainy July afternoon in a restaurant near campus, mere days from completing her college experience, Tracy reflects on the changes, both personal and communal, of her battle with City Hall.
“The funny thing is, I was shooting down at the Rainbow Gathering last summer and had been home just long enough to shower and go to a barbecue at a friends house, when I saw the helicopters over downtown and asked someone what was going on in my city,” she recalls. “I don’t think I would have even shot it if it wasn’t for some of the conversation over dinner.”
Tracy is amused by the inaccuracies that were generated by the prosecution—and subsequently, local media—about her motivation for documenting the Hells Angels gathering last summer. “I’m not anti-police, and I’m not out to paint anyone in red or make any kind of statement,” she says. “I tried to portray things as I saw them. Both the crowd and the police were less than innocent.”
Nonetheless, those who wield power in society, Tracy says, need to be held in check. If an officer from out of town isn’t wearing a badge with a name and number on it, or if police are targeting citizens and members of the media holding cameras, or if a cop loses his temper at an irate protester, those officers should be held accountable. “That’s the role of a journalist,” she argues. “Whether a person has power in the form of a baton or a gun or whether it’s another type of power, political power.”
The fallout for the people of Missoula still bothers her. “It’s divided the community, and people have lost trust for the police,” says Tracy. “That’s too bad, because many of the police I’ve dealt with, even on that weekend a year ago, were very cordial and patient with what was going on.”
Tracy has since been able to share her experiences with fellow students, giving them a very real look at the risks journalists can face when covering controversial subjects. “One professor asked me this spring if I would address a class in kind of a mock press conference format,” she says. “He told me there was a student in the audience who was also a cop who was downtown for the event last summer. He didn’t want to tell me which student it was, but he gave me a hint, and it only took me about two seconds to figure out which guy was the cop. But you know, this guy asked some very intelligent questions, which I took to heart, and after class he introduced himself. We had a nice talk, and he told me he thought my video was a fair portrayal of what happened, which I had heard from others, but it meant a lot coming from him.”
Tracy likely will be leaving Missoula soon in search of a resume-building career opportunity. But she hopes she doesn’t have to leave for long. “I own a house here, and I’m probably going to rent it out,” says Tracy, who is raising a daughter in addition to her school and work obligations. “But I’d like to come back here after a while. I think this is still a good place to live.”