When Missoulian Pat Simmons tells people she meets that she serves on the Missoula Police Commission, their response is almost uniformly the same: “The what?”
“People don’t know we exist, except each other,” says Simmons, one of the three members of the Missoula Police Commission, a citizen review body that investigates complaints against police officers, reviews prospective new hires to the police force, and serves as an appeals board for officers involved in union disputes or disciplinary actions by their commanders.
Earlier this month when the Citizens Review Committee released its long-awaited report on the events surrounding the Hells Angels national ride through Missoula last July, among its recommendations was a call for “a clear, accessible citizen complaint procedure … which provides for an appropriate review, accountability and public information.
“The Police Department’s citizen complaint procedure is informal and uncertain,” the report concluded. “The Committee recommends that a task force comprised of citizens, law enforcement officers and supervisors, and public officials, including the City Attorney, undertake a revision of that procedure.”
What the report didn’t mention is that there are no statutory requirements for police forces to have a formal complaint process in place. That said, Missoula is better served than most cities in the state because of the unique relationship that exists between its citizen police commission and the police department.
Prior to 1993, police commissions in Montana had the responsibility and authority to hear and rule on citizen complaints filed against police officers. But in that year, the Montana Legislature took away that authority, a change that eliminated the opportunity for citizens to have their grievances heard first by civilians in a formal, non-adversarial setting, and without expending the time and money it takes to go to court.
The Montana Supreme Court has described the police commission as “a quasi-judicial body” which has the power to issue subpoenas, take testimony from witnesses and issue formal recommendations. Although its decisions are non-binding, its recommendations can carry considerable weight. In Missoula, its members are appointed by the mayor to two-year terms and paid $10 per diem for their work.
“It is my understanding that throughout the state there has been an increase in the number [of complaints against officers] that have gone to court over the past five years, but there is no honest way of knowing why that is,” says Ray Murray, one of the three members of the Missoula Police Commission. Whether that trend is because there is no other vehicle in place for resolving those disputes, because of a rise in the number of complaints filed against police officers nationally or just a sign of our litigious times, Murray would not speculate.
What is noteworthy about Missoula’s police commission, says Murray, is that it was put into place to address that power vacuum created in 1995 and was readily embraced by Police Chief Pete Lawrenson. Complaints are still directed first to the department itself, with attempts made to handle the problem internally, and the result is communicated back to the complainant. But if the complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome, the complaint is referred to the Police Commission.
“Within the police department we feel it is our obligation to resolve a complaint,” says Lawrenson. “But there are occasions where it’s simply not resolved to a citizen’s satisfaction and they are not going to accept what I tell them.”
According to Lawrenson, the Missoula PD receives very few complaints each year about its officers—only 23 in 1999, down from 36 in 1996— most of which have to do with officers’ general demeanor, such as being rude or short-tempered. Lawrenson says he can only recall one formal allegation of excessive force, which was later deemed groundless.
About a third of the complaints referred to the Commission result in some form of follow-up with the officer, ranging from an informal verbal counseling to more formal types of disciplinary action, including suspensions or termination. However, a large percent of the complaints are shown to be unfounded. “There are many cases where a child tells a parent one thing that turns out not to be so,” says Murray.
Additionally, the Commission plays an important role in screening candidates for the force.
“We have seen people who have done very well in the written exams and the physical but when you interview them, you wonder whether or not they’d be a good police officer,” says Murray. “I remember one candidate who leaped up, smashed his fist on the table and said, ‘I like to catch bad guys.’ Which wasn’t the best interview, in my opinion.”
“In light of what’s happened at some of the other metropolitan police departments in other parts of the country—L.A., New York—it’s probably a positive thing that people know there is citizen involvement here,” says Simmons.
“This system works because we have people of conscience and good will,” says Murray. “If you don’t then you have problems.”