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Editorial: We need fair and impartial policing from Montana AG's office

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Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Attorney General Austin Knudsen is sworn into office inside the Montana Supreme Court chambers in January.

When law enforcement officers show up to a call, the public needs to be able to trust that they were sent to enforce the law without regard to politics.

And while we have nothing but respect for the Montana Highway Patrol officers we work with on a daily basis, we aren’t so sure that’s what they’re being asked to do.

According to officials at St. Peter’s Health, three different public officials with no medical training or experience recently threatened to force doctors to treat a COVID-19 patient with a controversial drug that is not approved for the virus. The hospital refused, emphasizing in a public statement that it will not deviate from widely accepted clinical treatment protocols or hospital policy regardless of the pressure it receives from public officials.

Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office confirmed that it recently sent an MHP trooper to St. Peter’s and met with hospital executives after the patient's family alleged that her rights were being violated. MHP reported its findings to Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, who found that there was no criminal offense that needed to be investigated.

While we might normally chalk this up to a misunderstanding that got out of control, this isn’t the first time the attorney general’s office has done something like this since Knudsen became its leader.

In January, Knudsen said he was exercising his supervisory powers by ordering Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert to dismiss a case against a Bozeman bar that refused to comply with the public health mandates in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Lambert initially refused, noting that the state of Montana was not a party to the case, but he and the owners of the Rocking R Bar later agreed to drop the case following changes to the local health rules in Gallatin County.

In August, Knudsen’s office directed Gallagher to drop two misdemeanor conceal-carry charges against a Helena man who was arrested after allegedly flashing a gun and physically attacking local restaurant employees who repeatedly asked him to comply with a statewide mask mandate. Gallagher refused to drop the charges, saying that would be a violation of his oath of office since he had probable cause to pursue the charges, and he noted that the whole process “doesn’t feel good.”

Fortunately, Lambert, Gallagher and officials at St. Peter’s Health were intelligent enough to recognize that the AG’s office was in the wrong and confident enough to stand up against its clear abuse of power. But the next target of the AG’s office might not be so intelligent or confident, and it’s worrisome to think of what could happen if those working in health care or the legal system start caving to the pressure.

Knudsen is sending a clear message that people who share his views will receive preferential treatment from the justice system, and he will not hesitate to use the full power of the state’s largest law enforcement agency to pursue political goals.

This troubling trend erodes the public’s faith in both the AG’s office and the law enforcement officials under its control, and it makes us question who we can trust.

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