Attorney General Steve Bullock on Friday issued an opinion clarifying that breaks in service cannot be used to circumvent Montana’s requirement that peace officers attend and pass basic training within one year of their initial appointment.
In her letter requesting the opinion, chairperson of the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council, Winnie Ore, had asked “What should be considered a break in service before an individual previously employed by an agency should be considered a ‘new hire’ and as such again have one full year to comply” with the training requirement?
The opinion considered two scenarios. In the first, it considered a peace officer who is appointed by an agency and has a break in service during the 12-month period following the date of that initial appointment. Under Montana law, the opinion found that, “Because the break in service occurs before the one-year period expires…the officer does not forfeit his/her position, authority, or arrest powers by virtue of the fact that he or she did not complete basic training within one year of his/her initial appointment.”
In this circumstance, the opinion concluded that the officer may therefore return to service under the terms of the initial appointment, and has the remainder of the initial one-year period in which to complete basic training. As the opinion notes, if this were not the case, the law’s clear intent would be defeated because officers or law enforcement agencies could simply use repeated breaks in service and reappointments to reset the one-year clock.
In a second scenario, the peace officer has a break in service that extends beyond the one-year period. Under these circumstances, because the peace officer has failed to complete the education requirements within one year of initial appointment, the officer’s employment must be terminated. The opinion concluded that “Once the grace period expires, the officer is no longer privileged to serve in a law enforcement capacity. There is nothing that would allow an appointing agency to extend multiple grace periods, or allow the officer the continually serve as a peace officer without training.”
However, while an agency cannot “rehire” or “reappoint” officers if they have not successfully completed training within the time period required by law, the agency could employ the individual in another capacity until he or she completes basis training.
The opinion also notes that the POST Council has the discretion to extend the one-year period for up to six months, allowing some flexibility to officers and agencies facing difficulty meeting the training requirement.
Opinions of the attorney general carry the weight of law unless a court overturns them or the legislature modifies the laws involved.