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Helena forming working groups on police reform, mental health

Capital High students move from class to class around School Resource Officer Andrew Barton in this file photo from 2019.

Capital High students move from class to class around School Resource Officer Andrew Barton in this file photo from 2019.

The Helena City Commission is starting the process of forming several working groups to evaluate and make recommendations on issues related to local police reform and mental health services.

The commission is considering forming a total of six working groups, each of which will focus on a separate issue: police reform and school resource officers; mental health services and a mapping of existing resources; the creation of a new model for local mental health services; civilian review boards; police data and records management systems; and the recommendation of a new memorandum of understanding between Helena Public Schools and the Helena Police Department.

According to a memo from City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk, the "working groups will focus on where we can support law enforcement and the community by providing the resources and training needed for improved outcomes and a resilient, inclusive community."

Back in June, during a time of civil unrest over police brutality nationwide, the city commission temporarily withheld about $300,000 from HPD's operations personnel budget while members considered doing away with a 21-year school resource officer program. The program provides four armed, uniformed police officers on local school campuses.

Many in favor of re-evaluating the program argued at the time that school children need access to mental health services, not armed guards.

"Police don't belong in schools," S.K. Rossi, policy and advocacy director with ACLU of Montana, told city commissioners during a June 29 public hearing on the matter. "Instead, students need access to well-trained mental health professionals to guide and support them through tough times. Responding to student misbehavior by criminalizing it only harms students, their families, and our communities. There are better, research-based ways to keep our students safe."

Those opposed to replacing school resource officers with mental health professionals argued that it would leave the schools vulnerable to school shooters and that the program fosters a positive relationship with law enforcement.

Shelby DeMars, a representative of the Helena Police Protective Association and a state Legislature lobbyist, said during the June 29 meeting that any reduction of the police personnel budget would result in an increase in crime.

The city commission's email inbox was inundated with hundreds of letters on both sides of the issue during the often heated month of discussion.

The city commission reinstated the funding during a July 27 meeting with the caveat that these working groups be established to further discuss the program and broader policing policies and make recommendations to the commission on how to best move forward.

The move also directed city staff to come up with a new memorandum of understanding by June 30, 2021. At that point the existing contract to supply uniformed, armed police officers on school campuses expires, and leaders hope to have a new agreement in place, which may continue the program or revise it.

The language used in Harlow-Schalk's memo describing the working group tasked with developing a new memorandum of understanding said it should produce ideas on how to "incorporate important elements that MAY be implemented."

City Commissioner Andres Haladay said during a meeting Wednesday he is "excited" that most of the groups have a "progressive and forward-looking" bent but voiced concern that language pertaining to the group handling the memorandum of understanding will result in a retention of the status quo.

"We're convening these groups for the purpose of being better and always seeing how we can keep improving on any systems we have," Haladay said. "So, I look forward to those, and I'm looking forward to seeing them. But I'll just say from the outset, I'm concerned (the school resource officer working group is) the one area that we are not saying to ourselves, 'let's aim high.' We're saying, 'maybe we're gonna adopt 100% status quo on this one,' and I'd encourage us to challenge ourselves on that one just like we're challenging ourselves on all of the others."

As outlined in the city manager's memo, city staff compiled a list of "stakeholder" organizations and individuals they believe should participate in each working group. Harlow-Schalk noted during the meeting that none of the recommended participants have been notified or have committed.

The recommended participants are as follows:

Working group 1: police department policies and procedures

  • City Attorney's Office
  • City Human Resources Department
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Montana Human Rights Network
  • Office of the State Public Defender
  • Former Tribal Federal Prosecutor
  • Helena Police Protective Association
  • Montana Law Enforcement Academy
  • 911 Dispatcher
  • Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority

Working group 2a: mental health services - mapping existing resources

  • Intermountain Children's Services
  • Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office
  • Center for Mental Health
  • God's Love
  • Mobile Crisis Response Team
  • Treatment Provider
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • YWCA
  • The Friendship Center
  • PureView
  • HPPA
  • 911 Dispatch
  • Executive Director of Good Samaritan
  • St. Peter’s Health
  • State of Montana Mental Ombudsman

Working group 2b: mental health services - new model

  • City Attorney’s Office
  • Helena Fire Department
  • Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s Office
  • Helena Municipal Court Judge
  • Former Judge
  • Center for Mental Health
  • YWCA
  • The Friendship Center
  • Citizen
  • Lewis and Clark County Detention Center
  • Lewis and Clark Public Health
  • HPPA
  • 911 Dispatcher
  • Criminal Justice Services
  • Good Samaritan
  • St. Peter’s Health
  • East Helena Police Department

Working group 3: civilian review boards

  • City Attorney’s Office
  • City Human Resources Department
  • Former Judge
  • Indian Alliance
  • HPPA
  • Montana Attorney General's Office
  • Police Officers Standard and Training

Working group 4: data and records management systems

  • City Attorney’s Office
  • City Clerk’s Office
  • City Human Resources Department
  • City Public Information Office
  • Helena Citizens Council
  • Lewis and Clark County Detention Center
  • Dispatch Union
  • Records Union
  • Montana Legal Services Association
  • Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority
  • HPPA
  • East Helena Police Department

Working group 5: school resource officer MOU

  • City Attorney’s Office
  • 2 High School Students (will convene student panels so they represent student input)
  • 2 school district employees (one admin one teacher)
  • 2 school mental health service reps (1 from Intermountain, 1 from Shodair)
  • Previous Black, Indigenous Person of Color SRO
  • 2 Racial and social justice advocates
  • Court Services (juvenile probation)
  • 2 parents (preferred BIPOC)
  • 1 member of mobile crisis response team
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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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