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Helena planning to review police department operations

Posted at 4:30 PM, Jan 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-10 18:30:32-05

HELENA — The city of Helena is preparing for the next phase of its ongoing review of the Helena Police Department’s operations, putting together working groups to tackle specific issues.

At an administrative meeting this week, Helena city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk gave city commissioners an update on the plans.

The city has outlined six working groups and lists of potential stakeholders they want to participate in each one. However, the specific members have not yet been chosen.

Each group is set to hold a series of two-hour meetings to work on identifying challenges and making recommendations to city leaders. The first meetings could begin as soon as February or March.

Harlow-Schalk said it was important to get an idea of what the groups’ responsibilities would look like, before people signed on as members.

“This is work; it isn’t ‘listen and then provide input,’” she said. “There will be expectations of time investment, not only to read in advance and be prepared to have conversation, but also to provide information.”

The first two groups will begin their work at the same time. One will discuss the possibility of creating civilian review boards, which HPD Chief Steve Hagen said could investigate uses of force and complaints against officers.

The other will give recommendations on how to revise the city’s memorandum of understanding with Helena Public Schools, which lays out the framework for the School Resource Officer program. Last year, the city commission decided to come up with a new agreement after weeks of debate over whether to remove uniformed police from schools. Harlow-Schalk said leaders want a revised memorandum to put more emphasis on what they see as the main goal of the SRO program – building a positive relationship between students and police.

After that, one group will discuss HPD policies and procedure, while another considers data and records management. The final two groups will run back-to-back instead of at the same time. The first will analyze and “map” current mental health resources in the community, and the second will come up with ideas for a potential better model.

Hagen said he sees the mental health discussions as some of the most important work these groups will do.

“Our mental health response in this community needs to improve,” he said. “Last night, we talked a little bit about two of the programs that are now up and running in Helena, and they are providing resources where they can get people in mental health crises help right then, not trying to figure out how to get them help six months from now. Get them help now.”

You can find more information about the proposed makeup of the six working groups at this link.

The city plans to hire outside facilitators to run the working groups. They will release a request for proposals in the coming weeks.

Harlow-Schalk said the first two groups should finish their work by the end of May and the second groups will likely finish by the fall. Leaders said the last groups, dealing with the mental health issue, could take longer to complete their discussions.

Harlow-Schalk said the city is generally specifically inviting people to join the working groups, based on whose experience they believe is needed and who they expect can dedicate the necessary time. However, she said people interested in participating can contact the city if they believe they could devote the time required. The meetings will also be open for public comment.