A group pushing for law enforcement reform in Montana is calling for changes to the Billings Police Department, which it says has a questionable history of using excessive force.
On Monday, the recently formed Warrior Women for Justice sent to Billings leaders a list of police practices and reforms it wants the city to implement to improve confidence in the department and lead to fewer killings of citizens by officers.
The requests include independent investigations of all police shootings of citizens since 2000, and the hiring of outside agencies to investigate all officer shootings and other acts of “brutality” going forward. Also among the nine suggestions are revised coroner’s inquest procedures, more emphasis on de-escalation policies, better training to deal with people going through a mental health crisis, improved community engagement and more assistance for officers dealing with their own mental health issues.
“We thank you for your time and consideration and look forward to continuing this dialogue with the City of Billings and Yellowstone County as we work to keep our families and communities safe — and start acting like neighbors again,” the emailed letter read.
The group’s call comes amid concern that law enforcement authorities in Billings and statewide too frequently use force when responding to calls, especially involving people of color, and that better accountability is needed to give surviving family members confidence that officer-involved deaths are properly investigated.
“We are desperate and trying anything we can,” said Lita Pepion, one of the group’s members. “It’s got to change.”
Billings Mayor Bill Cole and Billings Police Department spokesman Lt. Brandon Wooley didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.
At a rally late last month sponsored by Indian People’s Action and the Montana Human Rights Network, members of the group gathered in front of the Yellowstone County Courthouse in downtown Billings to issue similar calls for reform and remember people they knew — often brothers or sons — killed by law enforcement across Montana, but mostly in Billings, while recounting their experiences dealing with police after the deaths. During the event, as the few dozen attendees ate soup and frybread, group members said they would also work on other initiatives, like creating educational materials for citizens about how to engage with police and avoid violent confrontations.
One of the group’s members is Tasheena Duran, sister of 29-year-old Coleman Stump, a citizen of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe who was staying in Billings on Oct. 12 when he was shot and killed by officers responding to a call about suspicious activity. Officials said Stump pulled a gun from his waistband and pointed it at officers during a struggle to detain him.
Stump’s death has also prompted a call from Indian People’s Action and others for a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting and the department’s use-of-force practices, especially regarding people of color. The Billings Police Department, which has some of the highest rates of deadly force incidents in the country, has said its officers don’t intentionally target people of color, that its arrest numbers mirror statewide statistics, and that it doesn’t have the resources to address social factors like mental health and substance abuse.
During the Feb. 27 rally, Duran said her brother’s death, and her struggle to get information from the police, ignited a desire to push for changes to policing and to improve trust in law enforcement agencies through more widespread use of body cameras and independent investigations of incidents involving force.
The group, she said, hopes to inspire those changes and give other families support when someone they know is killed by police.
“We’re just now starting to speak up. There’s strength in numbers,” she said. “Being together with this group of women has been really great. It helps a lot.”
Pepion said Duran brought the group together and has given some members who’ve had a family member killed by officers “new life” after being frustrated for years trying to get answers. She said she hopes the group’s work, like the suggested reforms, can facilitate a dialogue between the group, community and police.
“We want to hear their side of the story and how we can help them, too, as we understand there are often many perspectives,” Pepion said. “We also want to start a dialogue, so our children and grandchildren don’t have to be afraid of justice.”
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