It was a grown-up game of “telephone”—with grown-up consequences.
Someone told someone who told someone… and before long a whole bunch of people showed up at town hall thinking Jackson Town Council was going behind their backs.
One of those someones in the telephone game was outgoing Chief of Police Todd Smith. He asked his friend Jeff Brown at Teton Sheriff’s Auxiliary to rally a few police supporters outside town hall Monday. Rumor had it the Town Council would secretly be discussing defunding the police and Smith wanted people to know.
“I thought maybe five or six people would show up,” Smith said.
Brown wrote an email to supporters. “This coming Monday, August 17, the Jackson Town Council will meet at 3 PM to discuss DEFUNDING the Jackson Police department, called “Mid Year Checking (sic)”, aka “Defunding the Police.”
The call to action spread like wildfire on social media. A national pro-President Donald Trump, conservative action group, Turning Point Action, got wind of the planned gathering and sent robocalls to more Jackson residents. Local conservative millionaire Foster Friess attended the town hall rally. Friess provided the seed money for the group Turning Point USA, of which Turning Point Action is a part.
In the end, dozens of protesters swarmed town hall ready to do verbal battle in support of law enforcement.
Only problem was, no such discussion was on the agenda for the Town Council’s meeting.
In recent months, police funding has been a hot topic in Jackson Hole, as citizen activists have urged local officials to redirect funding away from law enforcement and toward social services. Opponents say the police are fine as they are, filling a crucial role as protectors and peacekeepers. Caught in the middle are elected officials who have a backlog of other issues to address after a grueling several months mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pesky issue of police funding won’t go away.
Mayor and Council Maligned
“The letter speaks for itself,” Brown said.
Brown’s organization, Teton Sheriff’s Auxiliary, provides grants to law enforcement for equipment, training, and housing. In addition to the combined $13 million official budgets for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office and Jackson Police Department, these entities receive additional funds from the Auxiliary. According to the Auxiliary’s tax returns, past items include grants for K-9 training, “necessary equipment required by the police department,” and housing assistance.
Brown told KHOL he had heard a rumor that the council would be discussing the police budget even though it was not on the agenda.
“With some of the things happening today, they try to do them under the table,” Brown said.
In his email to supporters, Brown said Smith had asked him to inform people about the meeting.
“Chief Smith has asked that I gather as many as possible to completely overwhelm and outnumber the ‘DEFUND’ supporters that continually show up and are very outspoken,” Brown wrote. “This could be an excellent chance to squelch the DEFUND outcry in Jackson. Mayor Pete Muldoon seems to be fully in support of the idea and is pushing the agenda and needs to be set straight regarding the overwhelming community support of the PD.”
Muldoon, for his part, said it is his responsibility to examine policing and its funding streams. “I intend to fulfill that duty, and I’d be disappointed to learn there are people in the community who think the police department and its budget are exempt from public scrutiny,” he told KHOL.
The “defund outcry” Brown mentions has been largely led by Act Now JH, a grassroots organization that formed in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that sparked a global movement against police brutality and systemic racism. Members of Act Now JH attended a number of town and county meetings this summer as budgets for the 2020/2021 fiscal year were finalized. They also met with councilors and commissioners privately to discuss their concerns. As a result, the board of county commissioners set aside $10,000 for a public safety task force.
One of the main organizers of Act Now JH, Rachel Attias, said that people on both sides of the issue share a goal. “Believe it or not, the group that showed up to the town council meeting wants the same thing we do, which is a safe community.”
Attias said the disagreement is over whether law enforcement provides that safety. “Defunding the police really means increasing public safety by creating and supporting community-led measures that prevent crime and enact restorative justice,” she said.
No members of Act Now JH attended the August 17 workshop.
Meanwhile, town councilors expressed dismay.
“I am disappointed our community received mistaken information,” vice mayor Hailey Morton Levinson said. “Our agendas were published last Thursday and did not include any such item.”
The meeting in question was a routine workshop. Three items were posted on the agenda: a mid-year check-in, a proposed ski pass contribution by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to START, and next steps for the Northern South Park Neighborhood Plan.
Morton Levinson said that if the police budget is to be discussed, the public will know about it. “As with anything we discuss as a council, notice will be given and discussions and decisions will be held in a meeting open to the public,” she said.
She also said the public is always welcome to send an email to councilors at any time.
Councilor Jonathan Schechter said the misinformation spread about the meeting was “tremendously unfortunate.”
“We already have this incredibly fraught situation that is the state of our world right now,” he said. “It’s really important for everyone to take great care with our words and actions because everyone is under so much pressure.”
Another council member placed the blame on Foster Friess. Councilman Jim Stanford said Friess “is still butt-hurt from failing to buy the governor’s race. Maybe he should try a Bayer aspirin.” Stanford was referring to Friess’s 2012 comment on MSNBC suggesting women should squeeze an aspirin between their knees as a form of contraception.
A Muddled Message?
Schechter said the misunderstanding about what was on the council’s August 17 workshop agenda potentially stemmed from a regular council meeting on August 3. At the end of the August 3 meeting, Muldoon asked to add the police budget and policies as an item for further discussion at a future workshop.
The meeting video showed a brief discussion in which Muldoon suggested a motion to ask the town manager to work with council to bring back some sort of process for looking at the police budget.
The council has enough on its plate already without adding another item for discussion in the remaining five months of 2020, Stanford replied at the time.
At the meeting, Councilor Arne Jorgenson offered a brief comment saying he was satisfied with local policing and proud of the department. He said the conversation about budgeting is not one of cost-saving but of potentially about shifting budgets, a process not limited to one department.
“It has to be an overview of how we are investing in our community for a wide range of priorities,” Jorgensen said. “ I want to be really careful that we are not setting up unrealistic expectations that we are going to be letting officers go and defunding without having a larger discussion. I don’t think this is about cutting services; it is about expanding services.”
Muldoon concurred with Jorgenson and Morton Levinson made a motion to determine whether the police budget and structure should be put on a future workshop agenda. The motion passed and the meeting ended. In other words, they agreed to talk about talking about the police budget at a future date. Therein lay the moment that led to the August 17 rally outside town hall.
“What came out of that meeting was muddled,” acting chief of police Michelle Weber said. “I don’t think it was really clear.”
Weber clarified that she didn’t think the council intended to be opaque.
“I don’t think it was anything they did intentionally.”
Smith ended his 29-tenure last week. Weber is stepping into the role of chief at a difficult time in the country when police departments everywhere are under scrutiny. Jackson Police Department is even more so because of a recent offensive police blotter post that resulted in the resignation of Jackson Police Lieutenant Roger Schultz last week.
Weber and her fellow officers feel that they are walking on eggshells right now, she said. But she is trying to see this moment as an opportunity for the police department. “My desire to engage with the public in a positive way I hope will be contagious to my officers,” Weber said. “We are going to strive to be better than ever.”
In a denouement to an eventful August 17, at the town council’s regular 6 p.m. meeting that day, Smith received a recognition of service. Morton Levinson presented the recognition, signed by the mayor, which commended Smith for his nearly 30 years of service. The recognition specifically noted Smith’s leadership in implementing policies to reduce police brutality.
Jackson Town Council holds its next regular meeting on September 8 at 6 p.m. The agenda will be available online the week prior to the meeting.