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Dutton addresses protests, riots and rumors stemming from George Floyd's death


The death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis last month has sparked both protests and riots across the country, fostered tension between minority communities and law enforcement and has recently driven calls to defund or dismantle police departments.

With protests happening throughout Montana last week, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton addressed the issues at the Lincoln Government Day last Friday.

“You’ve probably seen it in the world, but I want to bring it in closer to you, to Lewis and Clark County and to Helena. Last week the George Floyd incident happened. I can’t make any excuses, won’t make any excuses for that,” Dutton said. “That has sparked some outrage in our nation and it has put peace officers in a bad light.”

Dutton acknowledged this is a stressful time.

“Right now, it’s difficult. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of resentment. You’ve had COVID 19… people are angry. people are frustrated. Right now, we’re an easy target. I don’t say that lightly. We’re a target. But we’re part of you,” Dutton said, emphasizing that law enforcement officers and their families are also community members.

Protests in Montana have generally been peaceful. Dutton said his office has no problem with people raising awareness about issues the black community faces, but he drew a distinction about how some choose to make their voices heard. “Protest all you want. It’s your First Amendment right. But there’s a difference between protest and riot. Riots have claimed millions of dollars in property, often in minority areas.”

Dutton assured residents his deputies are trained in the appropriate use of force, racial profiling issues and ethics, but said they’re not “cannon fodder.”

“We have to take control of situations, but there are ways to do it without killing somebody,” he said. “If you have to do it to defend your life, you have to do it.”

“In these uncertain times, we want you to know, we train for this stuff,” Dutton said, adding they’ve been asked what they’re going to do differently. “We’re going to keep doing what we do. We’re going to keep living by our values, we’re going to keep living by our mission statement, our vision statement. When this finally settles down and we can learn about the George Floyd incident, we will look at that to see what can we learn, so we don’t make that same mistake.”

“We’re fortunate in Montana where you know us and we have a personal relationship with a lot of you, and that builds trust,” he said.

He said trust is what holds elected officials in office and once an official loses public trust, there is chaos. “Trust comes from being a person of your word, and telling you the truth as we know it.”

Dutton acknowledged people’s right to condemn peace officers if they feel they must, but felt people should debate unwarranted claims about them.

“All it takes is one, sometimes, to stop a cascade, and that’s you,” he said. “That officer who did the deed in Minneapolis has changed the world. It takes one person to start a world of chaos. Why can’t it take one to start a cascade off acceptance and understanding?”

In response to a question from County Commission Chair Susan Good Geise, Dutton said his department has everything it needs to keep the peace in Lewis and Clark County during protests, but admitted they may not have the capacity to handle a full-scale riot. However, he said law enforcement agencies in the state have committed to help one another should that happen.

Dutton said a joint federal state and local “joint fusion center” has been working on verifying intelligence and rumors about potential riots, including disinformation about, and from, Antifa.

“Antifa has been instrumental in causing destruction and also disinformation about who they are and where they are at,” Dutton said.

One such rumor that spread rapidly online involved a supposed Antifa of convoy five white vans heading to Montana. The rumor was never verified, but Dutton did investigate a report the vans had arrived in Helena. It turned out to be IT contractors working at the capitol.

“It fit the myth,” he said of the report.

“People are afraid. There has been fear set in your heart. Before you forward something, don’t perpetuate fear; don’t perpetuate the anxiety,” Dutton said. “Know we’re on your side. if you have something credible, make sure and let us know.”

Rumors about the Antifa convoy began circulating last week. Toni Austad, noted that the Montana Human Rights Network determined the supposed convoy was the product of rumors created to incite people. The Bitterroot Star reported MHRN believes the rumors to be part of the “Antifa Fantasy” and is being used to mobilize right-wing activists to disrupt peaceful protests.

Austad asked that the commissioners reject such efforts by Montana home-grown paramilitary and right wing groups.

Dutton agreed the rumors are a problem, but differed with an assertion that Antifa isn’t an organization.

“Whatever it is, there is organization to it. There is a communications net … I dispute a little bit of that,” he said. “But I agree with you, don’t promote the fear, be reasonable. But I must tell you there is organization to it. But we don’t respond inappropriately. If people want to protest, they can do that.”


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