Protests in Montana over the death of George Floyd have remained peaceful, unlike others seen in large cities across the country. Montana police officers say they want to keep it that way, and denounce the excessive use of force by law enforcement. At the same time, public health officials are trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as groups gather.
A couple dozen people, many wearing protective face masks, are ringing bells and holding signs under clear skies outside the Missoula County courthouse. A few of them are sprawled on the ground, hands behind their backs, protesting the death of George Floyd while in custody of police in Minneapolis May 25.
Peaceful protests have also happened in Bozeman, Great Falls, Havre, Helena and Billings over the last week. Police departments across the state are grappling with how to deal with the public response to actions shown in the now-viral video.
"Both the actions that were seen on the video as well as the inaction that were on the video were unacceptable," says Steve Crawford, chief of the Bozeman Police Department.
"It’s shocking and disheartening and not representative of anything that is right."
He says rallies in Bozeman that turned up over a thousand people last weekend went well, and that the department is dedicated to keeping the community safe.
In a Facebook post last week, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton offered condolences to the family of George Floyd and said, "Please don’t judge all peace officers, who are your neighbors, friends and relatives, by this one horrendous event." He also said the department does not use excessive force and "all individuals are looked at for their situation, not privilege or race."
Travis Welsh, spokesperson for the Missoula Police Department, says this moment has felt deeply personal for officers across the city.
"It’s, I think, in some respect helped us to look inside a little bit and reflect on why we got into this work. We certainly understand the outrage. And we also support peoples' lawful right to peacefully assemble and protest. In fact we encourage that."
Welsh says the department is appalled and concerned by the actions of Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.
"It seems wrong. It violates our oath as citizens -- and by our, I mean policing in general. It violates everything that we’ve been taught to observe, such as human rights, the constitution, our own state and local laws."
He says the incident has prompted the Missoula Police Deparment to examine some of its own policies and procedures, and the department is bringing in new implicit bias training to address issues of community trust. The department reviews its policies every year and already had a refresher course on use-of-force in the works.
Brandon Wooley, administrative lieutenant for the Billings Police Department says the department there also prioritizes the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
"But if we start to see criminal activity, then we will respond, and then we will respond accordingly to any escalation of stuff."
He says the department conducts an annual review and had already assigned an implicit bias training earlier this year. It’s part of an ongoing effort to look at cultural awareness and diversity on the force.
In a heated speech Monday, President Trump called violent demonstrations across the country "acts of domestic terror," and threatened military intervention if protests continue.
Lieutenant Wooley says, "I’m not gonna get drawn in to trying to comment on other political remarks. We always, in our policies and our training, we hold the professional standard to only use reasonable amount of force necessary based off of the circumstances at hand. And we follow those rules and laws just like any other day. So, just because there’s another event or there’s something additional occurring, we are still gonna hold ourselves to those constitutional principles."
Gov. Steve Bullock this week said first amendment rights should be protected and people can express themselves lawfully and peacefully.
The protests are spurring worries about the spread of COVID-19. Authorities across the state said their role is for coronavirus education, not to serve as the social distance police, and that they won’t take action to limit crowd size. However, public health officials are worried about the possible impacts of the gatherings on the spread of coronavirus.
Cindy Farr is COVID-19 Incident Commander for the Missoula City-County health Department.
"We don’t want the protests to cause an increase in cases," Farr says.
She says she’s been pleased with social distance measures so far at rallies in Missoula.
Matt Kelley, health officer at Gallatin City-County Health Department, says the virus doesn’t distinguish between a protest and any other public gathering.
"Our job isn’t to be out there shaking our fingers at everybody who’s not socially distancing or not wearing a mask."
He says organizers in the Bozeman area have been in touch with the health department to make sure they’re recommending people follow the safest guidelines possible. He says people ought to stay home if they’re feeling sick. But if they do attend the protests, demonstrators ought to continue to socially distance, practice safe hygiene, and wear masks.