Local law enforcement approach questioned at safety meeting

By Kay Braddock

  The Public Safety Commission met earlier this week to address concerns regarding the method of law enforcement being employed within the Prairie County Sherriff’s office. The three-member board and Prairie County Sheriff Bill Klunder listened as members of the community recalled instances and shared opinions on the practices of local law enforcement, with board members also offering their insights on the matter.

The focus of the over hour-long public meeting centered around the activities of Prairie County Undersheriff Greg Huber. 
With about 20 residents in attendance, pro and con comments were close to evenly split.
Cherry Creek rancher Rob Reukauf led off on the discussion explaining he didn’t want another circumstance happening similar to that of what took place about 20 years ago, which resulted in a burned courthouse.
“I think you’ve got a problem here with your law enforcement and I think you need to get a handle on it because I don’t think we need another situation like we had years ago,” Reukauf said, indicating over zealous law enforcement can make an already bad situation worse.
Public Safety Commission Board member Steve Tibbetts said people have come to him complaining about “over reactions” taken by Huber during traffic stops.
“I’ve talked to Bill (Klunder) at different times,” Tibbetts said. “I’ve talked to the individual. And these things just keep happening. I talked to Bill about it a couple more times.”
Board member Ray Strasheim said he’s heard comments both ways.
“Maybe we’re just not use to everything being done exactly by the book,” Strasheim said.
Prairie County Commissioner Todd Devlin said the real problem was the lack of Public Safety Commission meetings being held in recent years, where community members can state concerns bluntly. 
Commission members agreed and approved to meet every quarter, with their next meeting scheduled for June 6. Meetings will be held in the evenings at the courthouse to allow easier access for those who want to attend.
Commission chairman Fran Fleckenstein pointed to the need to use common sense during traffic stops.
“You’re not guilty when you’re arrested,” Fleckenstein said. She criticized the practice of taking every person arrested for a DUI to be incarcerated at the Glendive facility. Flight risk individuals with no family nearby should be incarcerated, but those who have family members who can make bond should be allowed to go home, Fleckenstein said.
Terry resident Clinton Rakes questioned the idea that tickets were being given willy-nilly.
“Well, I don’t think we’re giving them tickets just to give them tickets,” Rakes said in response to comments made that traffic tickets may keep visitors from returning to Terry, which may have harmful economic affects on local businesses.
Complaints can go both ways, Gary Huber said, pointing to comments he has heard criticizing law enforcement for not dealing with criminal issues while at the same time grumblings being heard when they are handled.
“So where’s the guidelines there?” Gary Huber asked.
It’s a double edge sword, Greg Huber said in response to Fleckenstein’s earlier comments regarding those who are arrested for a DUI. If those individuals are taken home and end up driving again later that night, causing an accident, the officer can be held liable, Huber said.
When asked whether any disciplinary action had been taken on any of the officers, Klunder said he has verbally addressed complaints received. Only one written complaint has been submitted to the Sheriff’s office, Klunder said, noting it was received last week. He declined to offer any more specifics on the complaint or who was the subject of the complaint.
When asked about the disciplinary process followed within the Sheriff’s office, Klunder explained once complaints are received on an officer, he addresses the matter within the department. 
“By state statute I need to have a written complaint from someone,” Klunder said. If a complaint is deemed serious enough it is put into the officer’s permanent file.
If after some time goes by and the behavior continues, Klunder said the officer then goes before the Public Safety Commission for a hearing, where a recommendation is given. Ultimately the decision is left to the sheriff on whether the officer is discharged.
Klunder addressed fears of revenge that individuals who want to file a complaint may have.
“There will be no retaliation. If you feel there is, you come to me and I will deal with it swiftly,” Klunder said.
There’s very good law enforcement in this county, Fleckenstein said close to the conclusion of the meeting, adding, “There’s some areas that need to be worked on.”
Other comments addressed it’s an “everybody but me” kind of mentality when it comes to receiving traffic tickets.
“I mean we’re a small town, but we still have to abide by the laws,” Rakes said. “There’s no way around it.”
“The law enforcement officers have taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Montana,” Lorin Larsen, who serves as a reserve officer for the sheriff’s department, added.
Terry resident Larry Bond said complaints he has heard about recent traffic stops are more about the manner in which tickets are being given.
“I don’t think anybody in town is against law enforcement. I’m certainly not,” Bond said. “I get the feeling that if you’re going to get stopped, you give the guy the ticket and you don’t read them the riot act and you don’t enjoy doing it. My feeling is that people think the guy writing the ticket is just too happy writing it.”
Reukauf, who serves as fire warden of the Cherry Creek area, north of Terry,  recalled an incident that occurred two years ago where he felt Huber’s behavior and comments were inappropriate. Rather than receiving appreciation for extinguishing a fire, Reukauf said he was belittled by Huber, who arrived on the scene after the blaze was extinguished, for operating in a manner that Huber said put the fire truck Reukauf was using in danger. He said the incident, which took place in front of his two daughters, who had helped with the blaze, left him embarrassed. 
Reukauf’s recollection of the incident was the final concluding point made during the open public meeting, which was immediately followed by a closed session.

Published March 9, 2011

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