The Missoula Police Department will withdraw a Homeland Security grant application that names the Rainbow Family as an extremist "hazard," Police Chief Mike Brady said Tuesday in an email.
The grant was for a communications vehicle to be shared with law enforcement officers in western Montana. In his email, Brady apologized for the application implying that the Rainbow Gathering's activities made the vehicle necessary.
He also said he shared some concerns raised by citizens and council members about the grant.
"I have received comments both in support and opposition to the grant, which would have provided for a communications vehicle to aid in our mission of protecting and serving citizens in the event of an emergency," Brady wrote to the Missoula City Council.
"While the vehicle wasn't intended nor designed for military purposes, we made mistakes in our application by implying that peaceful groups were extremists and necessitated the application.
"In particular, the original grant application cited the Rainbow Family as an extremist group whose activities made this vehicle necessary.
"Also, while the intent of citing the Rainbow Gathering was to provide an example of a large event in which there could be a local impact that would need monitoring and possible response by law enforcement, it was a bad example for which I apologize."
This week, members of the public told the council the grant could have named a University of Montana Grizzlies game as an example of an event that might need crowd control. It could have listed as a hazard the white supremacists in Montana – or militia groups with an explicit mission to target law enforcement, said Councilman Jon Wilkins.
"They (the Rainbows) had every right to be upset. I would have been upset, too. Their name should have never been used in that," Wilkins said.
Wilkins, however, supports the police in seeking the communications vehicle. The Public Safety and Health Committee chairman said the matter remains on the committee's agenda this week and will be discussed at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4, in Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.
Last week, the Missoula City Council's Public Safety and Health Committee recommended the grant application be approved. The $254,930 grant would have purchased a mobile communications vehicle police planned to share with other law enforcement and emergency responders in western Montana; the city's contribution was going to be $29,200.
The proposal noted the communications vehicle would have been used for natural, technological and man-made hazards. Among other specifics, it cited avalanches, train derailments and extremist groups, naming the Hells Angels and Rainbow Family in particular.
The Rainbow Family of Living Light describes itself as a nonviolent group spreading the message of peace and love. It gathered in Montana in 2000 and 2013.
In response to a question before the meeting, Assistant Police Chief Scott Hoffman said he did not know why the Rainbow Family posed a hazard. Hoffman referred the Missoulian's inquiry to the lieutenant who had written the application, and the lieutenant said the Rainbow Family historically leaves behind a "mess."
This week, the council voted to send the grant back to committee at the request of Councilman Jason Wiener. Wiener said he had concerns about the way the grant characterized groups and also that it identified "activist protests" as situations in which the vehicle would be deployed.
"I think this feeds into a concern I hear from many people about the militarization of police," Wiener said.
At the meeting, Rainbow supporters and members raised similar concerns. Members of the public generally noted support for the communications vehicle, but disagreement with the characterization of the pacifist group and distress at the suggestion the truck would be used against citizen activists.
Feather Sherman, an arts educator, said she's been attending Rainbow Family gatherings since 1972 with other upstanding citizens who work hard, pay taxes and want to live in peace. Years ago, she saw a Rainbow prayer group surrounded by a SWAT team, but she has never witnessed any violence or terrorism.
"I'm really concerned about the militarization of the police force, not just here in Missoula, but this is happening in a lot of other places," Sherman said.
In his email Tuesday, Chief Brady said Missoula police do not operate as a paramilitary group. He said he, too, wanted to have more discussions about how the vehicle would be used in cooperation with other agencies and whether funding the tool is a high priority for the department and the city.
"I believe it is in the best interest of the city and the citizens we serve to be responsive to concerns raised locally and nationally with regard to changing attitudes in responding to public safety issues," Brady said. "The Missoula Police Department takes pride in serving the community as a professional, well-trained law enforcement agency and not a paramilitary organization.
"I believe there is a valid use for tools like this command vehicle and may bring forward requests in the future as opportunities arise for the city to leverage resources to acquire appropriate equipment."
At the council meeting, Harlan Wells had similarly urged the city to secure federal dollars. Wells, a reserve deputy with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office, said emergency responders can be in places with no radios, no phones and little means of communication.
"If that's the place we end up having an emergency, we're going to be in big trouble," Wells said.
Councilman Wilkins, chairman of the Public Safety and Health Committee, said he agrees Missoula police should have such a vehicle. This community pays taxes, and it should get some of its money back in the form of a command vehicle for communications.
He stressed the vehicle police requested was not an armored one.
"It looks like a dang motor home with a tip out," Wilkins said.