SHERIDAN — Hardin City Council approved a resolution to establish a Hardin Police Department in late February, but the process to develop a three-person police commission may be delayed, as Hardin Mayor Joseph Purcell said he has turned his attention toward health care.

Eventually, Purcell said he hopes a Hardin Police Department will allow the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office to go further afield in law enforcement services around the county.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Purcell aimed to make an offer to a police chief candidate by July 1, 2020, to coordinate with the fiscal year, and spend the next year transitioning out of the city’s contract for law enforcement services with the BHCSO into an independent police force.

The existing business plan includes running the police department from the budget currently paid to the county on contract, which expires July 1, 2021.

Law enforcement consultant Lee Cornell said whether Purcell can keep to his ambitious July 1 deadline will entirely depend on the economy and the state of the country as a result of COVID-19.

Until city funding is secure, the process is at a standstill, Cornell said. Fortunately, the city has about one year and four months until the BHCSO contract expires to slow down and take the time to do it right, he said.

Purcell said the need for a new HPD arose out of a need for better management regarding public safety and law enforcement services overlapping on and off the Crow Reservation.

The beginning phases involve establishing a three-person police commission, including a police chief. Purcell said while the mayor maintains the final say on who will fill that position, he plans to obtain a “blessing” from the council.

Purcell said he is still tentatively following through with his planned date, though lockdown procedures and his recent focus on health care have set projects back, he said.

For the first year, if Purcell can get HPD up and running, additional city budget revenues will supply the funding while the BHCSO contract remains in place.

Officers for the new HPD may be mined from the BHCSO or Billings law enforcement, he said. Purcell plans to appeal to officers who could retire in their 40s after 20 years in law enforcement and may be looking for a second career.

The last attempt to develop an HPD was short lived, between 2010-2012. Before that, the last active department was in the 1970s.

Purcell said part of reason HPD failed in 2012 was a lack of communication between the mayor and council at the time.

Cornell said with the previous HPD trial, the whole process lacked appropriate oversight and the person hired as the police chief spent the budget frivolously and poorly.

As far as relations with the Crow Reservation, Purcell said city officials are there for support and assistance as the Bureau of Indian Affairs looks to rebuild a tribal police force. The law enforcement dynamic within Big Horn County has changed over the years, such that the res now lacks adequate law enforcement capacity, Cornell said.

“I don’t understand how in a 20-year period of time, they could go from having a tribal police force, a BIA force, to two full-time investigators down there,” Cornell said. “To where they’re detailing guys in now just to cover the crimes – and that’s just not a good situation.”

Purcell said there is potential for discussion on cross-jurisdictional authority, such that Hardin officers could at least detain individuals while awaiting BIA or tribal police backup, he said.

While not dissatisfied with BHCSO’s officers, Purcell said without a voice in law enforcement decisions, city codes are not enforced and evidence doesn’t always make it to court.

“The biggest thing is public safety,” Purcell said. “The other piece of that is having some management control over what is enforced, how things are enforced, some accountability with our officers and with our chief of police. Right now as a contract, we pay them a fee and hope for the best. We have really no say and no management control over what goes on with the sheriff.”

In his monthly meetings with the sheriff and Big Horn County commissioners, discussions yield limited results, he said.

Providing a safer environment for economic growth and development within Hardin’s city limits is the third component Purcell said he seeks to address with HPD.

BHCSO has agreed to reduce contract fees as HPD grows, while continuing jail and dispatch services, he said. Purcell plans to grow the force annually, with a projected six-person team after five years.

Purcell said his most prominent challenge will be finding a police chief who is ambitious and willing to be patient with the process and hiring and maintaining staff during the first few years.

From a consultant’s perspective, control over finances is a major benefit of going independent.

The county said at recent meetings future law enforcement contract negotiations would start around $800,000, Cornell recalled. The city cannot afford to continue such a contract for the services they receive, he said.

“The benefit is the city of Hardin would have more control of how their dollars are spent,” Cornell said. “For $800,000, they could certainly operate their own police department, have more budgetary control over how things are done, how things are spent.”

Cornell said the county commissioners are on board to see this happen, but the city will have to bear a few years of tight budgeting in the beginning.

The Hardin community pays taxes for services from the BHCSO, so even with a city force capable of enforcing city codes and covering day shifts, the sheriff’s office will continue to take calls as necessary, he said.

Extended grant deadlines from the unexpected COVID-19 situation may even help programs and budgeting in the long run by slowing down for greater consideration and time to apply for more grants, Cornell said. He described the next month as a “tricky” situation to navigate.

Cornell continues to write policy and procedures for the future HPD and work with Purcell weekly over the phone, he said.

Crow Reservation spokesperson Karl Little Owl was unavailable for comment by deadline about how the planned department will impact public safety on and around the reservation.

The BHCSO did not return two phone calls requesting comment Friday morning regarding the anticipated impact of losing the contract with the city for law enforcement services.