Are the police in Billings out of control?
I’m not talking about the fact that Billings police officers killed two people within 24 hours last week, nor even that 12 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Billings in just the past six years. While those deaths—and the shocking number of “officer-involved killings” in Montana certainly deserve more attention, my focus today is on another way officers are not held accountable: when they are involved in professional misconduct and not named.
The Billings Gazette reports today that three BPD officers have been suspended without pay for two weeks for “sex on city property with a civilian employee of the department.” The lurid details about the sexual encounters, including sex in or near a car and in the basement of City Hall, are newsworthy and the original outlet that broke the story was absolutely right to publish it.
What’s troubling about the story, though, is that Billings Police Chief Rich St. John decided not to name the three officers, calling them “really good officers who made very, very poor decisions,” but did name the female civilian employee the three officers had sex with.
That’s an indefensible, sexist decision, perhaps motivated by a desire to shame the former employee who was involved in a dispute with the BPD after the alleged sexual encounters took place.
And while St. John told the Gazette he may name the three officers later in the week, it’s clear he hopes not to, believing that they’ve learned their lesson from the punishment they’ve received.
I’m inclined to agree with St. John that the officers should not lose their jobs and even that their suspensions represent fair punishments, but it’s indefensible to name the woman involved, especially considering that, at the time of the incidents, her job was a clerical position that did not involve a matter of public trust.
For a host of reasons, it’s critically important that we remind law enforcement in this country that, rather than seeing themselves as above the law, they must be held to a higher standard of conduct and release of information.