The state Transportation Department intends to arm 35 officers from its Motor Carrier Services Division, a move that drew opposition from the lobbyist for Montana's trucking industry.
Motor Carrier Services officers oversee the enforcement of state transportation laws regulating the size and weight of trucks, and they can check truck drivers' permits.
On Tuesday, Transportation Director Mike Tooley told the Legislature's Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee of his plans to arm these officers.
Motor Carrier Services officers currently don't carry sidearms, he said.
"Yet we ask them to go out and make stops in places like the Bakken," Tooley said. "It's a public safety issue. Our officers are out there with local law enforcement."
It will cost about $120,000 to buy the weapons and train the 35 officers, Tooley said. The money will come from a federal fuel evasion grant. In the future, the cost should be $2,000 to $3,000 a year to cover the cost of ammunition.
Tooley previously headed the Montana Highway Patrol and before that worked as a trooper. He said that in 1991, a Motor Carrier Services officer stopped a truck near Harlowton and learned from checking the name that the driver was wanted for a double murder in California. The unarmed officer had to summon Tooley, who was in Stanford, 91 miles away, and a local law enforcement officer for help arresting the truck driver.
"As a patrol leader, I always thought they should be armed," Tooley said.
Barry "Spook" Stang, executive vice president of the Motor Carriers of Montana, questioned Tooley's authority to make the decision to arm the officers without legislative approval.
"I think they lack the legislative authority because they've asked the Legislature before and they've been turned down," Stang said later. Lawmakers rejected the idea in 1987, he said.
In response to a question by Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, Tooley said the transportation director has the authority under state law to appoint them as peace officers. New officers since 1996 are trained at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.
Stang also questioned what kind of training and supervision the armed Motor Carrier Services officers would receive at the Transportation Department. In other states where motor carrier services officers are armed, they are part of their state highway patrols, he said. Montana's Highway Patrol is in the Justice Department.
"I think our major contention is that they should be properly trained and supervised and that supervision is not going to be given to them at Montana Department of Transportation," Stang said later.
He asked, "Why do they need a gun to enforce size and weight?"
After the meeting Tooley said various Montana law enforcement organizations have endorsed his plan, as has the Department of Justice.
Tooley said Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the department's budget, asked why he wasn't getting guns for all 120 Motor Carrier Services officers.
Tooley said he wants to arm only the 35 officers who make traffic stops. Most of the rest of the officers are stationed in scale houses where trucks stop to be weighed, he said.
Those making traffic stops need guns, he said.
"Once in a while they run across anything," Tooley said. "You find drugs. They can arrest people but they have no weapon."
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