Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Fictitious police decal affixed to private security force vehicle
Recent stories of a private security force descending upon a Montana town in black Mercedes SUVs with police department insignias emblazoned on the side have caused an Internet uproar.
The reason? Hardin, Mont., where the American Police Force entered driving the phony patrol cars, doesn’t have a police department.
News stories of the strange actions by the private security firm launched an Internet buzz, with many readers emailing WND, asking if there was a connection between Hardin, where city officials once sought Guantanamo Bay prisoners to be housed in a local jail, the APF and President Obama’s once-promised “civilian national security force.”
“Hardin is the ‘test town’ for President Obama’s new law to privatize the police force of local communities,” decried one widely circulated blog post.
Other tales of private cops “taking over the city,” patrolling the streets and erecting city gates to keep people in have also been splashed all over the Internet.
But while the APF did drive into town with SUVs bearing “police department” decals (which were removed two days later at the mayor’s request), many of the stories have left the residents of Hardin scratching their heads.
“Good night! I don’t know where to begin,” laughed Michelle Dyckman, Hardin resident and finance officer for the city. “It isn’t true. We’re like, ‘Where do these people get their information?’”
Dyckman further told WND there exist no contracts to substitute the APF for a local, government police force. Currently the town is patrolled by the county sheriff’s deputies.
Dyckman told WND she joked with her husband about obtaining safe passage through the rumored “city gates,” but added more somberly, “I think we’re all concerned about the misinformation that’s out there.”
The backdrop of the story is the Two Rivers Detention Center, a $27 million jail hailed two years ago as the largest economic development project in decades in the small town of Hardin, population 3,500.
But with the city unable to secure any prisoners to house in the jail, the detention center has remained vacant ever since, and the bonds that financed its construction have fallen into default.
Earlier this month, the city’s economic development branch, the Two Rivers Authority, announced a pending contract with APF to fill and manage the 464-bed, 114,000-square-foot jail.
Further, Becky Shay, the APF’s new public relations director, announced last week that after the jail is filled, the company plans to build a 30,000-square-foot military-style training facility and a 75,000-square-foot dormitory for the trainees adjacent to the detention center.
Several local reporters and writers, however, soon began to raise red flags over APF’s ability to follow through on its contract, wondering where the APF will obtain the prisoners, questioning where the APF will obtain the money to build the proposed training centers, and so forth.
The story gained national attention, however, when the black SUVs entered town bearing “Hardin Police Department” decals and adorned with the APF insignia – which just so happens to match the Serbian coat of arms, for unexplained reasons – on the fictitious police department logo.
Why were there phony police decals on the APF vehicles?
“I have no idea,” the Two Rivers Authority’s Al Peterson told KULR-TV of Billings, Mont. “I really don’t, because that’s not been a part of any of the discussions we’ve had with any of them.”
At an APF press conference over the weekend, company officials were questioned about the decals, but offered little clarification.
“They are to show our intentions are good,” said APF leader Captain Michael Hilton.
“Why not put an APF logo on it?” posited APF spokesperson Becky Shay. “You know, we’re getting there.”
WND contacted Shay for further clarification, but phone calls were not answered.
The decals were removed from the SUVs, reportedly at the request of Hardin Mayor Ron Adams, but at least some Hardin residents were made uneasy by their presence.
“Pretty looking police car, ain’t it?” Hardin resident Leroy Frickle told the Billings Gazette, upon surveying one of the black Mercedes. “The things you hear about this American Police, I don’t know what to think.”
“Who is the American Police Force? That’s what I would like to know,” Hardin resident Kizzy Neutgens asked KULR-TV.
The APF lists services ranging from convoy security in war zones such as Iraq to assault weapons sales and investigations into cheating spouses. The Associated Press reports it was registered in March as a California corporation, though the website claims its headquarters are in Washington, D.C.
“It probably is [mysterious] to those that don’t know what’s going on,” said Kerri Smith, wife of Two Rivers Authority Executive Director Greg Smith, who was recently placed on administrative leave.
She told KULR-TV the truth about APF will be revealed and the public has nothing to fear.
“Don’t panic,” she said, “just go with the flow and everything will be fine.”