Bill to Expand Weapons Use for Volunteer Police Forces Passes Second Reading in Montana Senate

House Bill 256, introduced by freshman Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, would allow auxiliary police officers to carry less-than-lethal weapons

By Denali Sagner
Flathead County Sheriff’s Office law enforcement officers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A bill by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, that would expand the abilities of volunteer law enforcement officers to carry weapons passed a second reading on the Senate floor on Friday by a four-vote margin.

House Bill 256, which was brought by Sprunger at the request of the Flathead County Sheriff’s office, would amend the guidelines outlining when auxiliary, or volunteer, law enforcement officers can carry lethal and non-lethal weapons.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office auxiliary force, or “the Posse,” is a group of volunteer law enforcement members who provide security services at large events, assist at crime scenes and aid with search-and-rescue missions. According to testimony from Sprunger at a March 21 Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office currently employs 70 auxiliary officers. Responsibilities of “the Posse” include securing events such as the Under the Big Sky music festival, the Northwest Montana Fair and local sporting events.

“As you can imagine, that offsets a significant tax burden for our taxpayers and provides important services at things like large public events, crime scene care, and elections, ensuring that our elections are properly staffed,” Sprunger said.

Corporal Charles Pesola, who oversees “the Posse,” testified in favor of the bill, emphasizing that while Montana’s open carry laws allow nearly any adult to carry a firearm, auxiliary officers are not permitted to carry any weapon while on the job, lethal or non-lethal.

“Montana law currently allows almost any law-abiding citizen to carry a weapon, but not auxiliary law enforcement,” Pesola said. “I struggle with the idea that we not only task these men and women with filling the gap to protect our community, but we expect it. And yet, they don’t have the tools to do it safely.”

Craig Lambrecht, CEO of Logan Health and a Flathead County volunteer officer, said, “It is extraordinarily difficult to enter into some of the missions in support of the Flathead Sheriff’s Office unarmed. Right now, these are very complex environments where we are challenged in the scenarios that have been identified, and I think that [House Bill] 256 would afford us the ability to support the sheriff’s office in a much more effective way.”

Under the provisions of the bill, volunteer law enforcement officers would be allowed to carry a less-than-lethal weapon, such as a TASER or pepper spray, after completing necessary training under their respective law enforcement agency. The bill would also allow volunteer officers to carry a firearm only while on a search-and-rescue mission with prior approval from the sheriff.

Though the bill faced no opponents during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, it passed by a slim margin on the Senate floor, with 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans voting it down.

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, raised concerns over liability if auxiliary officers are permitted to carry weapons.

“I really appreciate the volunteerism, the community involvement and caring for your community. But, you know, people can get hurt,” Webber said.

The bill will face a third hearing on the Senate floor, and if passed, will be sent to the governor’s desk.

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