BUTTE — The conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, has launched a national discussion about the militarization and sometimes aggressive tactics of the nation's police forces. But in Butte, a town known for its rowdy gatherings, police take "the lower key approach," says Sheriff Ed Lester.
It works better, he says, than busting through crowds armed or in tactical vehicles.“They realize you’re people — not machines and robots.”
Despite a summer festival season that draws thousands every year, Butte has not seen unrest like that in Missouri, where violent conflict has sparked international critique of police tactics. But Butte police also have not had to deal with large-scale protests.
The unrest in Ferguson started after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teen on Aug. 9. Photos of rifle-toting SWAT teams jumping out of military-style armed vehicles have been splashed over newspapers and on websites since.
“We’re not up against what they’re up against,” Lester said. “I hope we’re never up against that.”
Since 9/11, police agencies across the country have taken advantage of the federal programs such as the Department of Defense's 1033 Program to obtain guns, gear and vehicles designed for war zones. Butte police received a few military rifles, M-16s, about five years ago.
They gave them back.
“They weren’t practical for us,” Undersheriff George Skuletich said, adding that officers prefer AR-15s, which are stock in every marked patrol car alongside a shotgun.
Helena police also purchased and subsequently returned about 10 M-16s.
Skuletich said Butte police kept a diesel truck, which is used to haul evidence, and a since-retired Suburban used to transport the SWAT team. Other than that, the souped-up offerings didn’t fit local officers’ needs.
“We want to provide our guys with the things they need on a regular, daily basis,” Skuletich said, referring to stun guns, bulletproof vests and quality cars.
Other police agencies in Montana have been happy to accept the heavier equipment, which has included everything from small, personal gadgets like night-vision goggles to heavily armored vehicles.
The Helena police force, for example, obtained a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response vehicle last year. A grant worth more than $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security paid for most of the cost.
Helena Police Assistant Chief Steve Hagen wishes they had it 10 years ago.
During an armed standoff in which a man was holding his wife and dog hostage, Hagen was shot in the leg. A sheriff’s deputy on the same call in March 2003 was struck by 12 shotgun pellets. Both recovered from their injuries.
“That BEAR would have protected the officers,” Hagen said.
Before the BEAR, the Helena SWAT team used a 1994 military surplus ambulance to transport officers and equipment. The ambulance was neither bulletproof nor secure.
Helena police most recently used the BEAR in a high-risk arrest near a school. Hagen said the vehicle allowed the SWAT team to safely get close to the home of a suspected drug dealer known to carry weapons.
At 11 1/2 feet high, it weighs more than 18 tons and can transport up to nearly 30 people.
It also was used on a call in Jefferson County, which doesn’t have a SWAT team.
“The cost of the BEAR is well worth it,” Hagen added.
Butte police say they would entertain the addition of something like a BEAR if it were free, but they’re not actively seeking one.
“We felt other things are more needed and pressing,” Skuletich said.
Additionally, the force would have to pay for upkeep of the vehicle, fuel and training, likely at taxpayer expense.
“I’m certainly for anything to make our SWAT team safer” but the day-to-day needs are more important, Lester said. The Butte SWAT team has bulletproof tools like vests, helmets and shields.
If the situation arose where a BEAR or similar vehicle was needed in Butte, neighboring agencies can lend them out with an accompanying driver. Helena, Billings, Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell all have armed vehicles. BEARs are typically used for snipers, standoffs and other high-risk scenarios.
But Lester said he's concerned about the potential overuse of such commanding vehicles among some police departments, a common criticism in the wake of the Ferguson protests.
“When you bring that to the scene," he said, "you bring an attitude that’s not necessarily needed.”