Five years ago, the city government of Hardin, Montana decided to build a large jail — 144,000 square feet, 464 beds — in an attempt to capitalize on the detention boom. A development agency called the Two Rivers Authority (TRA) was created; it issued $27 million in bonds to pay for the project.
The jail was built. It remains empty. The bonds have gone into default.
Several months ago, the TRA negotiated a deal — the details of which remain secret — with a private security firm called American Police Force (APF), which was incorporated in Santa Ana, California last March.
The deal reportedly includes $2.6 million for APF to run the jail, plus $23 million to run a 30,000-square foot training facility for military and police personnel on property managed by the TRA.
In addition, APF promises to shower the city will all kinds of amenities — computers for the local schools, donations to the local food bank, tricked-out cars for the local police force…. Whoops, did I mention that last item out loud?
Hardin has no police force; it receives police coverage through the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office. So it caused a stir last Thursday when APF officials arrived in Hardin in grand style — a convoy of black Mercedes SUVs bearing the logo of a non-existent “City of Hardin Police Force.”
The APF hired Becky Shay, a reporter from the Billings Gazette who had covered the story of the Hardin jail, as its new spokesperson (for the enviable salary of $60,000 a year). It also began negotiating an employment deal with mayoral candidate Kerri Smith. Her husband, Greg Smith, is the Executive Director of the TRA and the fellow responsible for working out the deal with APF. Greg Smith was immediately put on “administrative leave” and has effectively disappeared. (He didn’t answer messages I left at his business telephone number.)
Local residents are understandably curious about this mysterious private “security firm” that appears to be taking over their town.
There was initial speculation that American Police Force (the organization’s website conveniently went dark as this story broke) is a tentacle of the mercenary firm once known as Blackwater and now called Xe (pronounced “Zee”). A press spokesperson at Xe informed me that she had never heard of APF before news broke of recent developments in Hardin.
APF insists that it has plenty of money to make good on its promises, but pointedly refuses to say where it comes from. Its new press spokesman deflects such questions by saying that she’s confident that her paychecks will clear. Civic leaders either aren’t talking or don’t have anything useful to say.
There are some in Hardin who suspect that their town is essentially being taken over by a corporatist mercenary firm. As things stand, that suspicion is entirely justified.