Missoula residents lay flowers at the corner of Stephens Avenue and Beckwith Street in honor of Brendon Galbreath on Thursday, Aug. 19. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

MISSOULA — About a hundred people gathered at Sacajawea Park Thursday afternoon to grieve the death of Brendon Galbreath, 21, and demand transparency from law enforcement agencies that released few details about his death last week.

“What we don’t know is what happened,” said Zuri Moreno, a community organizer in Missoula who has been working with Galbreath’s family, during the gathering. “We know that in the early morning of Aug. 12, Brendon lost his life. How did that happen? It is unacceptable, more than a week later, that we do not have answers. It is unacceptable that this family does not know what happened in those last moments of Brendon’s life.”

Galbreath, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, died following a police-involved shooting after being pulled over for an undisclosed reason. Galbreath drove away from the traffic stop, leading to a vehicle chase that ended at approximately 1 a.m. on Stephens Avenue, where police say both Galbreath and an officer fired weapons. The Missoula Police Department has said officers rendered medical aid until EMS took Galbreath to St. Patrick Hospital at an undisclosed time. Galbreath’s brother has said his parents were notified of his death by hospital staff around 5:20 a.m.

A sign at an Aug. 19 rally calls for police transparency about the events leading to the Aug. 12 death of Brendon Galbreath. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

Thursday’s rally took place at the same time Galbreath’s family was holding his funeral in Browning after retrieving his body from Missoula on Sunday. In a statement posted on Facebook, Galbreath’s older brother called for more transparency from law enforcement about the events leading up to Galbreath’s death.

“As I sit here and stare at my brothers body we can’t help but to play scenario after scenario after scenario about what could’ve happened, what did happen and what should’ve happened,” Terrance LaFromboise wrote in part of a longer statement. “We can all create our own narrative and our own reality based off of the lack of information we have.”

Officials with the state Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigations are investigating the incident at the request of the Missoula Police Department. On Monday, Division Administrator Bryan Lockerby said the investigation’s initial findings indicate that Galbreath, who was carrying a firearm, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he and a Missoula police officer fired weapons “almost simultaneously.” According to unreleased video footage from body and dashboard cameras and other evidence collected at the scene, Lockerby said, the officer’s bullet struck the vehicle Galbreath was inside, but did not strike Galbreath.

After a week of what they describe as confusing accounts from law enforcement officers and agencies, Galbreath’s family has not yet been allowed to see the footage or other evidence on which DCI based that preliminary conclusion.

“I have two boys. And so I just think it really hits home that [Galbreath was] only 10 years older than my kids and his family just doesn’t have answers. I just can’t imagine what they’re going through right now.”

Missoula resident Amber Shaffer

The video footage is part of what the family and community members are now insisting be released, in addition to a complete timeline of the events of the incident and the names of officers who were involved. 

In response to the family’s demands, a spokesperson for the Missoula Police Department in a written statement acknowledged “the different emotions, questions, and feelings that arise from family, friends, and the community surrounding the time of Brendon’s passing.” 

Regarding the release of available evidence, the spokesperson said, “Missoula Police Department hears your request. The Missoula Police Department is communicating directly with the Galbreath family in an effort to help them understand the events of Brendon’s death and the investigation process. When additional details are available, they will be shared with the community.” The statement also said that upon receiving the DCI report, the police department “will conduct [an] internal investigation based upon the independent facts provided in their investigation.”

A Department of Justice spokesperson directed Montana Free Press to Lockerby’s Monday statement, in which he said the division will not be releasing further statements about the investigation at this time. 

“Our agency makes no assumptions and draws no conclusions. We gather facts and produce a comprehensive investigative report,” Lockerby said Monday, adding that the final report will be given to the Missoula County attorney. “The evidence and information we gathered during this tragic event will then be available as a matter of public record. In the meantime, the evidence is classified as criminal justice information and will not be released.”

Despite investigators’ request for public patience, attendees of Thursday’s rally said the immediate release of details could help the family grieve and foster trust between law enforcement and the community.

In the week since Galbreath’s death, Missoula resident Amber Shaffer said she’d had her own trust shaken.

“I’ve always trusted the police. And it’s hard when something like this happens and you question why we do trust them, or why they’re not held to a higher standard,” said Shaffer, an enrollee of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe of South Dakota who was born and raised in Missoula.

“I have two boys. And so I just think it really hits home that [Galbreath was] only 10 years older than my kids and his family just doesn’t have answers,” she said after the rally. “I just can’t imagine what they’re going through right now.”

Rally attendees lay flowers above a photo of Brendon Galbreath at Sacajawea Park in Missoula on Thursday, Aug. 19. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

The police department’s public communications over the past week, she said, have highlighted room for improvement.

“It kind of shows how we pride ourselves in Missoula about being so progressive, but we just have so much further to go,” Shaffer said.

Other rally attendees expressed a mix of emotions, including appreciation for the number of people who showed up to support the family. Others sounded grim, saying the news of Galbreath’s death added to their general misgivings about local law enforcement.

Some were drawn to the event primarily to mourn a person who was lost to the community and to the people who loved him much too soon.

“He texted and we were supposed to hang out and I never texted him back,” said Tara Healy, 24, who said she met Galbreath while dancing in Missoula one night but lost his number before they could reconnect. “He was light and bubbly and fun,” Healy said. “I didn’t get the chance to really get to know him.”

This story was updated Aug. 19, 2021, to include a post-publication statement released by the Missoula Police Department.

latest stories

Interior Secretary signs CSKT water compact

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally executed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact Friday, finalizing a long-running effort to negotiate an agreement that reconciles the tribes’ historic treaty rights with Montana’s modern water rights doctrine.

Montana hospitals in ‘dire’ straits as COVID rages

This week, hospitals from Billings to Missoula are instituting or preparing to institute a “crisis standard of care” under which medical services and supplies are rationed. While case numbers are still slightly lower than they were last winter during the virus’ previous peak, hospitals are being overwhelmed with COVID patients.

Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.