BOX ELDER — Wearing shirts with Coleman Stump’s picture and carrying banners and signs, dozens of people gathered on a warm, windy Saturday afternoon for a short march to call for changes to police department practices after Billings police killed the Chippewa Cree man in October.
The 50 or so people who gathered Dec. 19 to march about a half-mile down the road to a school and back used the event to remember Coleman Stump as a father and sibling. They also hoped to illustrate what they described as larger problems within the Billings department regarding the frequency of police shootings and the department’s protocols for investigating those incidents.
“Let’s get some transparency in these departments,” said one of Stump’s sisters, Tasheena Duran, during Saturday’s event. “Let’s get something done.”
Billings Police Department officers shot and killed Stump, of Box Elder, on the night of Oct. 12 after responding to a call about suspicious activity.
The shooting has led to calls for change from tribal leaders and advocacy organizations including Indian People’s Action, and for a federal investigation into the department’s use of deadly force against people of color.
Family members and friends on Saturday continued those calls, saying they hope Stump’s death will draw attention to the department and lead to changes that could increase confidence among victims’ families that such incidents will be properly investigated. For example, the department could implement a policy requiring that investigations of officers who use deadly force be conducted by an outside agency, said Vina Stump, Tasheena Duran and Coleman Stump’s mother.
Montana doesn’t require investigations by outside agencies for on-duty shooting, and Billings, alone among police departments in Montana’s seven largest cities, doesn’t have a policy mandating an outside investigation. The Billings department does forward its internal investigation findings to the Montana Department of Justice for review, and it has occasionally requested that outside agencies like the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office conduct investigations of deadly force incidents.
The day after the shooting, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said four officers had responded to a call reporting suspicious activity on the night of Oct. 12, and that the officers attempted to detain and question three people, including Stump. St. John said Stump refused to cooperate with officers and “a physical altercation took place,” which led to the officers’ unsuccessful attempt to subdue Stump with a stun gun. St. John said two officers shot at Stump after he pulled a gun from his waistband and pointed it at them, hitting him an unspecified number of times. Stump died of his wounds after being taken to a hospital, St. John said.
Billings Police Department spokesman Lt. Brandon Wooley didn’t respond to requests for comment, but previously told the Billings Gazette that the department’s officers don’t consider race when using force. Wooley highlighted 2019 arrest and use-of-force data showing that Native Americans comprised 28% of the department’s arrests and 27% of its use-of-force incidents. African Americans were involved in 8% of the department’s arrests and 5% of its use-of-force incidents. St. John said this summer that the department is placing a greater emphasis on de-escalation training to prevent use of force.
While Native Americans account for a disproportionate number of arrests in Billings, Wooley said, that trend is mirrored in the criminal justice system statewide, and is not limited to Billings.
In response to questions from Montana Free Press, acting U.S. Attorney Leif Johnson said his office has received an investigation request from Indian People’s Action, but otherwise did not comment on the case.
“The request has been forwarded to the proper U. S. Department of Justice components,” he said. “In accordance with Department of Justice policy, we cannot confirm or deny the existence of a federal investigation at this time.”
A state-mandated coroner’s inquest will examine the case after the police department’s investigation of Stump’s death is complete. Jurors in those proceedings hear evidence and determine whether to recommend that a county attorney pursue charges against an officer who used deadly force on duty.
Stump, who was 29 when he died, was a father of five and one of six siblings. Pictures on a “Justice for Coleman Stump” Facebook page show him riding horses, posing with family members and attending a rodeo. Duran said he was an easygoing person with a talent for lightening the mood.
“He was funny,” she said. “No matter the situation, he would sit there and make jokes out of it.”
Family members said they are skeptical of the story presented by police, and are anxious for the coroner’s inquest. They also said that becoming aware of the rates at which Billings police have used deadly force in recent years — among the highest in the country — and how the department investigates its own officers prompted them to begin advocating for changes.
Vina Stump said she hopes Saturday’s event will show younger generations the value of speaking up and pushing for change.
“Our children are going to grow up and be leaders of this reservation, of different parts of the land,” she said. “They should be taught to be smart, learn something, and get something going, for all of our people.”
Duran said she hopes that publicly pressing the department could lead to broader changes, like a state law that would require outside agencies to investigate officers when they kill someone while on duty. Though Montana isn’t alone in not requiring outside investigations of officers’ use of deadly force, some states, including Utah and Wisconsin, do require that investigations be conducted by outside agencies.
Such a law, Duran said, would be a good way to honor her brother. For now, she’ll settle for raising awareness and advocating practices and policies, including universal body camera usage, that she said could help prevent fatal encounters with police.
“There’s nothing we can do that is going to change what happened … but if it saves one more person’s life, that matters,” Duran said. “Even just opening people’s eyes, I’ll take that.”
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