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Final Report

What each side can take away from the Hell’s Angels Committee report

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The weekend of July 28-30 in downtown Missoula had all the ingredients of a chemistry lesson in spontaneous combustion: Take two potentially volatile agents—400 members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and 170 out-of-state law enforcement officers—combined in a solution saturated with local citizens, alcohol, adrenaline and testosterone, pressurized with indignation and fatigue and heated to a boiling temperature.

Then stand back, duck and cover.

Now that the smoke has cleared, if anything good can be distilled from this painful experiment, much of it can be found in the report released Friday by the Citizens Review Committee, appointed by Mayor Mike Kadas to look into the events surrounding the Hell’s Angels national ride through Missoula in July. Released several weeks behind schedule, whatever was lost in the report’s delay is more than made up for in its fairness. In short, only the most closed-minded personalities could claim it is unfair or overtly biased. More importantly, the report accomplishes something rare in the political arena: the validation of two opposite points of view.

Although many hope this document provides closure to what everyone agrees was a highly aberrant event, this will hardly be the final word on the matter. Kadas and Police Chief Pete Lawrenson both say that policy changes at the Missoula Police Department will likely result from the report’s recommendations, and U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci, one of the six members on the committee, will shortly be releasing supplemental comments of her own that deal with community policing policies and the rights and responsibilities of citizens when interacting with police.

Matteucci also indicated Friday that there were incidents from that July weekend that troubled her from a civil rights perspective, some of which will be dealt with internally by the police department, others that will be referred to the legal system for further investigation.

More importantly, Kadas, Lawrenson and other Citizens Review Committee members say that this document represents not the end but the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between the community and its police force on how to best meet its law enforcement needs while protecting the rights of its citizens.

“Missoula has a very fine police department,” Matteucci said. “It has historically enjoyed the trust and confidence of its citizens and there is no reason why that trust and confidence should change now.”

Vindication of the Police

There’s a saying among mediators that if both sides are slightly dissatisfied with the outcome, they’ve probably struck an equitable deal. On many points, the Missoula PD fared well in this report, and if Chief Lawrenson is dissatisfied with any of its conclusions, he has not expressed it publicly.

Notably, the report concurs with the police on several key points. First, based on the track record of the Hell’s Angels and the most current intelligence reports about them and rival gangs, it finds that the threat to the Missoula community was not exaggerated, and local preparation efforts were thorough, professional and fully warranted.

Second, the report states that the tactic of so-called “aggressive policing,” which had proven successful in checking the violence of the Hell’s Angels in other cities, was successfully deployed in Missoula as well, as evidenced by the lack of significant problems with the bikers themselves. The report states that Lawrenson had “no reasonable alternative” but to adopt an “iron glove” style of law enforcement.

“In guaranteeing the rights [of citizens], the police are often confronted with a Catch-22 situation,” Lawrenson said. “To protect the rights of some, you may have to deploy tactics that are offensive to others.”

Third, the report defends the decision to bring in out-of-state officers, based on the dearth of police officers available in Montana. On this point the committee goes one step further, defending the constitutionality of that decision by referring to the Interstate Law Enforcement Mutual Aid Act of 1983, which, the report asserts, does not run contrary to the state constitutional ban on the import of armed persons for preserving the peace. The report duly notes that it is not a judicial body but does not mention whether that law has ever been challenged on constitutional grounds.

Fourth, the report states that many in the Missoula public failed to appreciate the serious threat posed by the Hell’s Angels and the violence of which they are capable, painting them more as “harmless counter-cultural heroes” than “criminals.” This may have been in part due to the police department’s failure to involve the community more fully in the planning process, a decision, the report states, that likely contributed to other problems experienced that weekend.

“No one in the Department anticipated the reaction of a significant number of Missoula residents who, for a number of reasons, were disturbed by what appeared to them as something uncomfortably close to a week of martial law,” it reads. That said, the report goes on to state that if the Missoula PD had not prepared as thoroughly as it did, “it is conceivable that the problems that could have resulted would have dwarfed the incidents that led to the creation of this Committee.”

It concludes, “The Police Department as a whole and its senior leadership in particular, demonstrated a high degree of skill and professionalism in planning for and responding to the presence of the Hell’s Angels in Missoula.”

Vindication of Protesters

Those who felt firsthand “the iron glove of policing” also have reason to feel their concerns are thoroughly addressed. Notably, the report makes several key findings about police decisions to use force.

First, the report finds that the vast majority of people in the downtown area that Saturday night and Sunday morning were not engaged in illegal activity when police decided to disperse crowds. “It is unavoidable in a free society—and in fact quite healthy—that a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of police in a community, or the aggressiveness with which they perform their duties, will generate considerable tension even among the law-abiding citizenry,” it reads.

Second, the report concludes that the police use of pepper spray to disperse crowds “did not contribute to a reasonable and effective resolution of the situation. Moreover, the use of pepper spray for crowd control is itself a questionable and controversial tactic.” The report goes into considerable detail about the health risks associated with pepper spray, including a recent court ruling that finds its use problematic against nonviolent crowds engaged in civil disobedience. The report is particularly critical of the decision to spray non-resisting protestors waiting to be arrested and recommends that the Missoula PD review and revise its policy on pepper spray.

Third, the report concludes that the use of riot gear escalated crowd tension and disorder and was not justified by concerns for officer safety. In this area, the report goes one step further by addressing the larger contextual issue of the growing militarization in police forces generally.

“We therefore recommend that the Police Department re-evaluate its recent policy decisions on the incorporation of elements of militarization into our civilian police force, in light of the societal risks it poses,” the report reads. “Once embarking upon a road toward increased militarization, it is difficult to turn back as the psychological effects are pervasive.”

Curiously, one endnote to the report suggests that the large contingent of FBI agents in Missoula that weekend may have contributed to the officers’ reactions toward Missoula crowds, “which were out-of-keeping with the police department’s historically restrained response to protest demonstrations and rowdy crowds.”

The report is critical of the way some detainees were handled in the Missoula Detention Center, suggesting that better policies and procedures be implemented for booking large numbers of detainees, and suggests that the department adopt a clearer, more accessible citizen complaint procedure.

It’s worth noting that Chief Lawrenson’s apology Friday for his comments several months ago referring to some residents as “the enemy within” goes a long way toward healing some of the wounds of that weekend.

“While we may not be perfect,” Lawrenson said, “the one thing that we will never cease to do is continue to challenge ourselves each and every day to better serve you, the citizens of our community.”

What the Report Leaves Out

Conspicuous for their absence from this report are two issues of concern. First, the report says nothing about the actions or accountability of out-of-state law enforcement, some of whom, protestors claim, wore no badges or identification but operated under the anonymity of riot gear. Some complaints made by residents were directed toward the Missoula PD simply because out-of-state officers are not here to answer the charges. Lawrenson said Friday that complaints lodged against those officers will be directed to their departments, but that he has no jurisdiction to pursue those complaints. Presumably, that jurisdiction falls to U.S. Attorney Matteucci.

Second, the report makes no mention of the efforts to document the events of that weekend, either by local news media or ordinary citizens. This is troubling in light of the invaluable role this material played in helping the committee and community members see and understand exactly what transpired. It’s ironic that the committee’s three lawyers make no mention of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, free assembly or free press, which, for many protesters, lie at the very heart of this entire ordeal.

In his thanks to the review committee, Kadas said, “It is the ability to put yourself into that type of position that is the essence of citizenship. If we do not have people who are willing to take on that responsibility and the difficulties that come with that, then we are much less of a community in the end.”

No doubt the same can be said for those who put themselves in harm’s way to stand up for what they believe in.

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