In an about-face since the Hells Angels' last Garden City run, Missoula city officials are gearing up for the outlaw motorcycle club's upcoming rally by soliciting advice from local citizens.
Missoula Mayor John Engen and Police Chief Mark Muir will host a public meeting next week to answer questions and address concerns about the upcoming Hells Angels gathering, slated to take place in and around Missoula between July 30 and Aug. 1.
The meeting is part of a "visible planning process" that Muir hopes will stamp out any lingering misgivings about the police department's heavy-handed, but not necessarily misguided, response eight years ago. That July weekend was characterized by downtown riots, clashes with citizen protesters and a heavy, often aggressive police presence, which drew intense criticism from many members of the public.
When the exhaust cleared, citizens were more nettled by the sheer volume of police officers and their aggressive crowd-control tactics than by the risks posed by the hundreds of ill-reputed bikers.
"We will be seeking out input from members of the community to avoid some of the previous issues we ran into, given that those problems were mostly with the community and not with the Hells Angels," Muir said during an interview with the Missoulian earlier this year. "We worked things out pretty well with the Hells Angels. What we need to work out better this year is involving the community."
To some extent, that means making the planning process more transparent, and informing people about the police department's plans to bring in additional officers beforehand, so locals aren't caught off guard by the sudden police saturation downtown, Muir said.
"One of the purposes of the meeting is to make sure that folks aren't caught off guard," Engen said. "We learned a few lessons the last time around and we want to apply that knowledge. Having the folks we serve around to ask questions and give us their comments I think will benefit everyone involved."
In the eight years since the Angels' last visit, Muir said, police have looked back and weighed what was successful and what was not.
"City officials will take a different approach to this year's visit as the result of some thoughtful study," according to a news release announcing the meeting - set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in City Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.
Still, Missoula authorities intend to brace themselves for the Hells Angels' descent in much the same way they did in July 2000, as evidenced by the $139,000 in additional funding police have requested to pay for additional officers, overtime, extra vehicles, and equipment like batons and pepper spray.
However, the current budget request is less than what police asked for eight years ago, and omits some of the tactical tools that Missoulians found imperious and overbearing - like a platoon of helicopters.
Muir said there will also be visible changes in the make-up of the police presence, most notably in the dirth of out-of-state officers patrolling Missoula's streets and policing its residents. This time, all the extra officers will be drawn from Montana cities and counties and the state Highway Patrol.
In 2000, Missoula's police force made arrangements with agencies throughout Montana and across the country, ensuring that a phalanx of law enforcement would be on hand when the Angels rallied. In all, 170 officers from more than two-dozen outside agencies came to assist the Missoula police and sheriff's departments, while 76 local officers operated under the police department's authority.
It's a strategy that police agencies across America swear by, and which they say effectively stymies most criminal behavior before it begins. But Missoula residents complained that the police presence resembled a weekend of martial law, and groused about how some out-of-state officers didn't seem to share their small-town values.
In particular, they criticized the police tactics of officers from Salt Lake City, Utah. Those agencies made up the bulk of the out-of-state police contingent, in part because they viewed the Hells Angels rally as a training opportunity to help prepare for the 2000 Winter Olympic games in Salt Lake City, according to a Citizens' Review Committee report released in December 2000.
The report called the police department's failure to include the public in its planning process an oversight, but also concluded that "had the police department not prepared as thoroughly and competently as it did, including its decision to bring in uniformed officers from other locales, it is conceivable that the problems would have dwarfed the incidents that led to the creation of this committee."
Larry Howell, a University of Montana Law School professor, will serve as moderator. Howell was a member of the Citizens' Review Committee that scrutinized the Hells Angels visit to Missoula in 2000 and made recommendations for new approaches.
Officials say the Hells Angels will stay at Marshall Mountain campground and at hotels around Missoula, and will also spend time at restaurants, bars and shops in the city center.
Talk it over
The Missoula Police Department's meeting on the upcoming Hells Angels visit is planned for Tuesday, July 1 at
7 p.m. inside City Council Chambers at 140 W. Pine St.