For Mayor Mike Kadas, his first day back from vacation was almost a typical Monday in City Council chambers: Phyllis Jamison, Missoula’s one-woman crusader for all critters feline and feral, was pleading her case for more humane kitty control. Ross Best, the mayor’s most persnickety political gadfly, took five trips to the podium to complain about the new baseball stadium, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and a dozen or more points of council procedure. Meanwhile, the evening’s discussions centered around such perennial favorites as mixed-use development, the Urban Comp Plan, the sale of a city easement and the purchase of a new fire engine.
Oh, and then there was that little matter of the police crackdown on Missoula residents.
As expected, Kadas took some heat for choosing to vacation incommunicado during that unpleasant ordeal, and for delaying the public comment period until late in the evening. But despite charges from his critics that his handling of this affair is becoming “another rush job,” “an illegally considered preemption and damage control device,” and “more media spin,” it was readily apparent that neither Kadas nor the council has any intention of sweeping this controversy under the rug.
“There is a phenomenal amount of polarization in the community over this, and people feel quite strongly on all sides,” Kadas said. “The kind of actions that were taken were quite serious and if there were abuses, those are quite serious as well, and they need to be looked into with as rational and responsive a way as we can.”
Before opening the floodgates of public comment, the mayor introduced a motion to establish an independent review panel to investigate police actions during the last week of July. The motion, approved late in the evening by a unanimous vote, gives Kadas the authority to select citizens who he believes have the objectivity and balance to review the evidence without bias.
The panel, he said, will likely consist of five to seven people selected in the next week or so, with their investigation and recommendations to the council wrapped up within 30 to 60 days.
The mayor then asked that public comments be reserved to his motion, which, in the highly charged atmosphere, seemed about as likely that night as a hard rain.
“You guys are sitting on a tinderbox,” said Rick Heilman, a college student and local business owner, who expressed his strong distaste with the heightened law enforcement presence which he said hounded him and other Missoula residents all week.
“We don’t have freedom if our voices are repressed by the sound of helicopter blades, if they’re repressed by the sound of an angry police officer screaming at you to go home,” Heilman said. “What I did see on behalf of the visiting officers was blatant disregard for the social well-being and the health and happiness of the community they were supposed to be here to protect and serve.”
Says Steven Reilly, who was one of two people to deliver to the council a petition with 751 signatures condemning the actions of the Hell’s Angels Task Force, “There are some of the most atrocious civil rights violations I’ve ever witnessed.”
But for others, like Rhino Tavern owner Kevin Head, it was the unruly crowd and not the riot police that caused him the most unease.
“There was a real negative, antagonistic, confrontational attitude there,” says Head, who was working Saturday night, July 30, when many of the arrests and confrontations took place. “It was weird. It was really uncomfortable …. I thought the police protected us.”
Head was one of several people who blamed much of the community’s polarization on the media, which he said “has a sweet tooth for fanning the fire of controversy instead of just reporting the news.”
Others, like Cass Chinske, seemed more inclined to fan the flames of conspiracy theory, blaming the violence on “a handful of anarchists in the streets.”
“An issue was created where there was none,” added James Carkulis. “It was an issue that was orchestrated … to get maximum effectiveness. This wasn’t something that blossomed out of nowhere.”
For a City Council often highly polarized along political lines, the Hell’s Angels/police fiasco seemed to have a sobering effect on those differences. Ward Two Councilmember Jim McGrath, expressing his confidence in Kadas’ intelligence and sensitivity in selecting the review panel, noted, “We have the respect of and support for our police department, and therefore we must have this investigation.”
Still, as McGrath pointed out, more questions than answers remain, namely: How and why did this incident happen? Who gave the orders for the police to charge the crowd? Was excessive force used? What was the role of outside and federal law enforcement? Was the Montana Constitution violated? Does Missoula need a policy about the use of non-lethal force? And what policies need to be implemented to prevent this from happening again?
“This is not an issue of ‘for the police department’ or ‘against the police department,’” said Ward Three Councilmember John Torma. “It’s about how we functioned as a community last week and how we can get back to feeling like the community we want to be.”