Why is Mayor Engen Replacing Missoula Police with Private Security?

Very little happens in the dead of a frigid winter night in Missoula, Montana. The roads are empty. The stores have closed. The atmosphere is still. The town sleeps. It is not unusual for the peace to broken by dancing shadows which announce the approach of headlights followed soon by the crunching and popping of tires rolling against the icy pathway. But on this early morning, the headlights do herald the approach of something unusual. 

A Jeep Cherokee appears, inching its way down the narrow alley. The creeping vehicle soon reappears on the neighboring street, then passes slowly through the alley again. Though puttering along repeatedly through the same streets and alleys at a half-a-mile-per-hour, this driver is not lost. The suspicious activity continues into the next day and following night, and neighbors begin to take notice. But no one in the neighborhood seems to know who these people are or what they might want.

In December the first pictures of the suspicious vehicle emerge. The pictures shared by area residents show a Jeep with Lithia dealership plates. The vehicle haunting the West side alleys is also identified by small but distinct decals reading, “Rogers International: true risk based security solutions”.

While Missoula’s North side stands as one of the area’s last remaining working-class enclaves, that doesn’t necessarily mean the neighborhoods are the crime-ridden, uninhabitable, no-go zones some might have you believe they are. But that’s exactly how they’re described by David Pritchard, President of security firm Rogers International PLLC, in a recent piece by NBC Montana

“I would say definitely if anyone was to drive by that area and look at it, you know, it’s quite a bit different than it was three to four months ago.” ~David Pritchard

David Pritchard doesn’t live in these neighborhoods, but he is right about the situation being “quite a bit different than it was.” Because upon his company’s contract with the City of Missoula, anonymous vehicles began stalking through the residential alleyways of Missoula’s West side and Franklin-to-the-Fort neighborhoods.

According to their website, Rogers International is a private security company that claims to be based in Missoula, Montana. A quick google search places their offices at 1211 South Reserve in Missoula’s Montgomery Building, but a visit to this address reveals that Rogers’ offices do not exist there, even though that’s how it is currently registered with the Montana Secretary of State. The plot thickens.

According to public records, Rogers International was formed on 18 March 2020 and were contracted by the City in the autumn of 2021 for $670,000 to conduct their patented “risk-based security solutions” at a growing list of Missoula locations, starting with our most prominent homeless facilities. 

According to NBC Montana, “The Rogers contract with Missoula is capped this year at $670,000, the money from federal COVID-19 relief funds.” As the dust of the Corona Crisis hysteria settles, it seems the federal funds allocated for replenishing an economy damaged by lockdowns have been spent on a private police force. But even though Rogers is paid by public institutions with funds from the American Rescue Plan, this arrangement somehow got framed as “privately funded” last month on KGVO:

“KGVO News reached out to Jesse Jeager, Director of Development and Advocacy for the Poverello Center for an update on the two facilities as the weather takes a turn for the worse this week. … Jeager did not comment on the security at the Johnson Street facility due to the fact that security is privately funded by the City of Missoula.” 

A cynical observer could be forgiven for thinking that the City of Missoula and their new private police force have perhaps seen too many superhero movies. It’s almost certainly the case for David Grossman of Killology Research Group, who was recently hired by the City to deliver his crazy-eyed sermons to local cops where he raves about how killing humans on the job invariably results in, “they all say, ‘the best sex I’ve had in months.’ Both partners are very invested in some very intense sex. There’s not a whole lot of perks that come with this job. You find one, relax and enjoy it, ah?”

Grossman goes on to say, “We are at war and you are the front line troops in this war. … So you do this. On your way home tonight, park your vehicle on the overpass for just a minute. Step out of your vehicle for just a minute. Look out on your city. Look at your citizens going about their lives, and know deep in your gut that today, at the risk of your life, you made their world a better place. Whether they know it or not. Then walk up to that bridge rail, put your hands on that rail, look out on your city, and let your cape blow in the wind.”

Since Missoula’s liberal leaders aren’t bashful about bringing Killology’s habit-forming violence fetishes to a police force near us, one must wonder about the intentions of beefing up the local garrison with private gunslingers who are even less accountable than the police. A whole private industry has sprung up right under our noses, where a group of armed vigilantes vow to solve the “risk based” problems of our fair city through means apparently unavailable to the police.

One Rogers International employee said his company was contracted because local police lack the resources to perform the job. “We are more of a deterrent force,” he said. “Because at this point, the homeless population do know that we are here. We are taking steps to prevent criminal activity in certain areas.”

What does it say about Missoula that homeless and low-income people are considered “suspicious” and stigmatized automatically in association with criminal activity? And by patrolling for “the homeless,” does Rogers International mean to imply that lower income neighborhoods are more susceptible to crime? Because that accusation made Councilwoman Heidi West publicly cry bitter tears of resentment two years ago at the 16 December 2019 City Council meeting: 

“I think it’s entirely unfair to say that, people that live in low income neighborhoods, sorry, love where they live less. … It was a very hurtful and classist thing to say. And I think that we all value where we live and some of us have less resources to defend that space.”

It is worth noting that no such accusation was actually made for Councilwoman West to tearfully respond to. Her weepy proclamation that “we all value where we live” was, in fact, made in response to the pleas of hundreds of Missoula’s working people begging the City Council not to gentrify yet another working-class neighborhood. However, the specter of classism was thought to be so persuasive that Councilwoman West fabricated the accusation out of whole cloth in order to distract from the effects of her own votes, which are partially responsible for the homeless crisis the city is now hiring mercenaries to “solve”. 

These kinds of Public-Private Partnerships often result in even less transparency for we the public. Why couldn’t that $670,000 be used to employ more police officers? Is this Missoula’s careful version of “defund the police”? 

Mayor John Engen tells us his reasons for stepping up Missoula’s show of private force:

“We also have armed security here at City Hall now, um, and as much as I regret to say it, it’s kind of the nature of the world these days.”

John must of course forgive the confusion of his citizens who observe that the City Hall building is in fact Missoula’s Police headquarters. Are we meant to understand that the Missoula Police are incapable of managing the security of their own building? Do the police themselves somehow require protection from the citizens they protect and serve? What resources and armaments do City Hall’s private security guards have access to that the police are restricted from employing? Have the causes of the nationwide labor shortage also disgruntled police officers to the point that they just aren’t interested in the work anymore? More to the point: why this rapidly expanding plethora of private security firms?

Rogers International are the third such firm currently employed by Missoula’s paranoid leaders. As Martin “Gomer” Kidston reported for the Missoula Current in November of 2020:

“Missoula County will start by moving from Black Knight Security and Investigation to a new contract with Phoenix Protective Corp. out of Spokane in an effort to tighten access to the downtown courthouse and improve customer service.”

How do Missoula’s police officers feel about this? 

Contacts within Missoula’s Police Department confirm that Rogers International has made itself quite unpopular with law enforcement. According to anonymous police sources, RI security agents follow “suspicious” pedestrians around town in their vehicles and incessantly call MPD whenever said pedestrians sit down somewhere. If a homeless individual wanders too far from the stables, a Rogers Rent-A-Cop will promptly alert law enforcement officers to roundup strays back into the corral. But this boy-who-cried-wolf mentality has annoyed MPD officers and contributed to an atmosphere of professional animosity.

And the occupational hostilities don’t end there. An open letter from the Poverello Center’s Executive Director, Jill Bonny, reveals that the staff at Montana’s largest homeless shelter aren’t too thrilled about this arrangement either. She writes, “Recently, the City of Missoula signed a contract with Roger’s International to provide security to the Cedar St/Hawthorne and Johnson/North Ave neighborhoods. Like you, we have mixed feelings about this. … This is not a company that the Poverello Center has hired, and we do not get to control the contract.”

Speaking of who gets to control the contract, just how much are these companies capable of doing? Exactly what kinds of operations are Rogers presently involved with here in Missoula? 

The “What We Do” tab on Rogers’ site declares that their company believes in presenting their clients with “specifically tailored services” which include private investigations, technical surveillance, camera installation, drone security services, threat assessment, threat mitigation, threat management plans, crime prevention, firearms training, “and much more…” 

What exactly makes them “international” remains to be seen. But RI patrol areas don’t seem limited to shelters or their immediate surroundings because Rogers aren’t guarding the homeless shelters per se. They’re patrolling the neighborhoods surrounding those shelters, and have begun pushing out into the rest of the city, placing an ever widening scope of Missoula’s street grid under the management of this private security firm. Even the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT) now contracts with Rogers International. The patrol maps recently released in local media show us how a single contract can place a massive area under private patrol.

To ask whether Rogers were contracted with public money to conduct surveillance on private citizens seems redundant since conspicuous surveillance of citizens seems to be the task they were explicitly hired to execute—just as long as said surveillance pertains only to homeless citizens who can’t afford attorneys to defend their rights. Where those operations end and unlawful surveillance begins, on the other hand, could be anyone’s guess. Missoula Mayor John Engen certainly has a well-established reputation for publicly destroying his political opponents and retaliating against his critics. It is surely a coincidence that Rogers personnel began appearing in the neighborhoods and rear-view mirrors of several prominent journalists when these contracted patrol routes officially began in October of 2021.

But suppose there is an incident at the Poverello where a Rogers guard employs the use of lethal force. Who takes legal responsibility in such a scenario? Is the City liable, or is Rogers? It already seems the case that Poverello guests can be murdered with such impunity that grieving family members can’t even get suitable legal representation because there’s no money at that end of that rainbow. Private enforcers are, by definition, less accountable than police and the expanding multitude of different security firms complicates who ultimately accepts responsibility for the liability hot potato.

“It’s only a matter of time before somebody gets shot,” said a Riverside Pawn employee to local activist Travis Mateer. This statement was uttered in response to observing armed Rogers agents on a foot pursuit of a homeless man beneath the Reserve Street Bridge. An advantage of hiring private contractors is that they’re under absolutely no obligation to obey the Constitution, nor are they required to respect your civil rights.

And while Rogers’ employees might be quick to dodge questions pertaining to their use of force, David Pritchard provides an unvarnished truth regarding their lethal capabilities while on patrol: 

“To me it’s more important for me as a business owner at the end of the day that my guys get home safe, um, you know, than the other way around. You can’t put a price tag on somebody’s life.”

Perhaps it is outside the purview of Rogers‘ contract to place a price on human life, but the practice is routine in certain industries, as could be described to you by any insurance adjuster, personal injury lawyer, or as seen in the $39,000 cash incentives related to involuntary intubation of hospital patients throughout 2020. But I digress.

According to KECI, the City’s contract with Rogers stipulates they are not allowed to carry firearms into the Poverello Center. But David Pritchard makes it clear that, in fact, they are allowed to carry firearms into the Poverello—as long as there’s a “reason” for doing so. 

“The Poverello has told us we’re more than welcome to come into the building. If there’s not a direct reason behind it, the firearm is not to come in with us.” David goes on to say, “Then you know, that’s kind of the, get in, do what you need to do, and get out as quick as possible.” 

When it comes to the business of patrolling peaceful neighborhoods, many of Pritchard’s statements smack of an occupying force in a conflict zone. Get in, do what needs to be done, and get my people home safe. If Missoula were to be considered a conflict zone, that might distinguish Rogers International from private security, placing them more definitively as a mercenary outfit, since a mercenary is “an armed civilian paid to perform military operations in a conflict zone.” 

Whether Rogers International qualifies as a paramilitary force is currently an open question, but in a truly surreal twist, Pritchard goes on to mention the Fort Hood shooting during his interview with NBC Montana. It is difficult to guess what Pritchard meant to imply by invoking the mass murder of 13 individuals by U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan. Perhaps attempting to reassure the interviewer and their audience about the mental stability of his armed enforcers, his reminder that catastrophic violence can come from the most unexpected sources stands as cold comfort for the citizens of Missoula who see their publicly-funded and accountable police being gradually supplanted by a private occupying force whose training, accountability, and mental stability could be as lacking as their transparency.

3 thoughts on “Why is Mayor Engen Replacing Missoula Police with Private Security?

  1. Pingback: Some Housekeeping, Links, Changes, Etc… | Zoom Chron Blog

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