Red Lodge, Montana

A Chat with the (former) Chief

Friday, February 28 was Red Lodge Police Chief Richard Pringle’s last day on the job, as he retired after over 13 years with RLPD. We sat down with him the next day to do a lightweight Local Rag-style interview, and ended up drifting into a discussion on the state of modern small-town policing.

Retired Police Chief Richard Pringle

Retired Police Chief Richard Pringle shows off his new ID.

When Pringle started in Red Lodge, his predecessor was already gone, so Assistant Chief Dick Anderson showed him the ropes. We asked Pringle what words of wisdom he’d leave for his successor.

“Take it easy,” he said. “Move in slowly and get to know the town and the people. Be diplomatic.”

Red Lodge has a bit of “us vs. them” mentality. Pringle explained it as a fear of retaliation. People are afraid to work with the police. Is this a valid concern?

“That’s a good way to get fired,” he replied. “We’ve terminated one officer for that attitude.”

The actual firing was done by the mayor. By state law, the mayor is the chief administrative officer of the police department, and is responsible for all hiring, firing, and discipline. Pringle has worked with four different mayors in Red Lodge.

“New mayors come in with all these ideas about how the police should work, and then they find out pretty quick – when people come in complaining – that there’s two sides to every story.”

Did not being from here make his job harder?

Richard Pringle

Chief Pringle at his retirement party, holding his retirement gift — a new watch.

“Oh, no. The job is much harder for cops who grew up here.” It’s tough for police officers to deal with people they’ve known since childhood.

Pringle worked in law enforcement for 42 years, from small-town Red Lodge to big city Dallas, Texas. In all that time, despite the impression you’d get from cop shows on TV, he never shot anyone. We asked him which of those shows he watched, and what they got wrong.

“I’ve had to watch a lot with the family,” he responded. “NCIS, Castle, Intelligence. I like Hawaii Five-0, but mostly because it’s shot on location in Hawaii.”

As for what they got wrong, he told us, “It’s mostly condensing weeks of investigation down to 30 minutes. They don’t show how much work really goes into a case. Then there’s the computers. The stuff they show on that big computer table in Hawaii Five-0 happens right now. They’ve got phone conversations, fingerprints, all kinds of records. A lot of that would take warrants and a long time. The one that got it most right was Adam-12.”

When we asked him what’s changed in the last thirteen years, he pointed at the audio recorder we were using and said, “Things like that recorder. We used to get written statements. If I was interviewing you as a witness? Write it out. I’d guide you through it and then you’d sign it. That’s evidence. Now they want it – at the least – audio recorded. And preferably, video recorded. Used to be, if a police officer said something you could take it to the bank. Now, if it’s not recorded, you might as well not even bother taking it to trial.”

They can’t do the Hawaii Five-0 trick of instantly pulling up video from all of the security cameras around town, but the RLPD does use security cameras and webcams from town when dealing with cases.

The biggest difference, though, is how the actual police work is done. “Where I was from, if you had a burglary, you worked it. You looked for fingerprints, looked for evidence, compared prints. You had to send some things to the lab, but not many. Here, almost everything is sent off to the lab. If you have something that needs to be fingerprinted, you box it up and send it to the lab in Missoula.”

He told us about a murder case when he was in Stephenville, Texas, where he and another officer had to fly to Connecticut to apprehend a suspect. That doesn’t happen in Red Lodge.

Pringle went on to talk about other changes in technology. When he took over the RLPD, only one squad car had a video recorder, and it was a hand-held digital recorder stuck to the dashboard. Today, all of the cars have built-in digital dash cameras and the officers wear a microphone on their uniform. The cameras are running all the time like a DVR, but they’re not saving what they record. When the officer flips on the flashing lights on the roof, the camera backs up one minute and starts saving audio and video, so the recording will show the beginning of the incident – the probable cause.

Now, police departments are switching to body-worn cameras. We don’t have any in Red Lodge yet, but they’re looking at them in the new budget. With those, nobody will be able to step out of the field of view of the car camera to escape being recorded.

He’s had a chance to work with new technology as it came out. “When I was working in Dallas, it was kind of a police showcase. Japanese and U.K. law enforcement would tour through to see how we did things. There was a tracking device on each police car. The dispatcher could pull up a map and there’d be a blinking light where each police car was. If you got into a chase and went into a part of town you weren’t familiar with, the dispatcher could guide you: ‘hey, that’s a dead-end street.’

“If you got out of the car and got into trouble, you had a little panic button. When you pushed it, dispatch could send backup. If you were close enough, the lights and siren in the car would go off.”

The technology that Pringle got most excited about was weaponry. Things that seem fairly minor to us are very major to law enforcement. Reloading took a lot of time, fumbling with individual bullets. Now they carry semiautomatic pistols, and one button drops the clip and they can slam in a new one. The pistols even have lights so the officer doesn’t have to worry about a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other.

There were some memorable incidents when he came to Red Lodge:

“Had a woman call me once. She wanted me to whip her teenaged son. I said ‘No, ma’am, I can’t do that.’

“And when I first got here, there was a call that there were two large creatures in the back yard laying down. When I got there it was two moose. I told her, ‘Just leave them alone.’ I like to watch the turkeys. We’ll see 15 or 20 of them crossing Broadway single file, about a yard apart, taking their time. They’ll have traffic blocked up both ways.”

When asked about his plans for the future, Pringle said, “This is a beautiful town. I’d love to stay here as long as I can.”

If any of his old buddies from Texas come up to visit, we asked him, what would he like to show them? He said he’d take them to the mine entrances and the ski mountain. His favorite spot is Wild Bill Lake. He said it’s wild enough that you can really punctuate the mountains, but close enough that you can do it in a short visit.

He smiled and talked about going up on the west bench and showing people the east bench. He points out the road, and then the irrigation ditch. Because of the slope of the bench, there’s an optical illusion that he’s managed to use to convince visitors that the water in the irrigation ditch is actually flowing uphill.

What would he feed the Texas visitors? “Something they couldn’t get at home. A lot of them are hunters. I’d probably serve bear or moose.”

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