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Hardin police chief reacts to Tyre Nichols death, reflects on Ahmaud Arbery case

By Jackie Coffin,


Police tactics and use of force are under national scrutiny again, following the death of Tyre Nichols, 29, who was beaten by five police officers now charged with murder in Memphis, Tenn.

About 1,400 miles away from Memphis, Hardin City Police Chief Donald watched the incident through body cam footage.

"Horrifying," Babbin said. "Being in law enforcement for over 25 years, I was devastated when I saw it."

At the helm of the newly-formed Hardin Police Department, Babbin came to Montana after working as a police officer for 16 years in Brunswick, Georgia, a small town that gained national attention for the high-profile death of Ahmaud Arbery.

In February 2020, 25-year-old Arbery, a Black man, was on a run in Brunswick, when he was chased down and murdered by three white men. Police officers arrived on the scene soon after the shooting, but no arrests were made for several months, causing national outcry and protests.

At the time, Babbin worked for a neighboring police department in Brunswick and remembers distinctly what happened next.

“The community itself, they wanted answers and they weren’t getting the answers," Babbin said. "I think from the forefront of this incident the day it happened, there were a lot of things that weren’t being said to the public.”

It was one of many incidents over his long career in law enforcement that shaped his ethos around policing.

“My theory is to develop a sense of trust, and I think we need to tell the citizens and the visitors we serve, the truth," Babbin said. "I think if there is a critical incident you need to come up front and tell them.”

In incidents like these, Babbin points to the need for transparency and leadership in law enforcement - principles on his mind following Nichols' death.

"It comes back to the leadership of these agencies and I think some police chiefs, some police commissioners, they lose the outlook on small groups, small organizations, small units in any department. We put a lot on our supervisors and I think we need to put more on them," Babbin said. "It's going to take time to build this nation's trust again in law enforcement."

Babbin shared his experience with a critical incident in 2020 near the end of his time in Brunswick, when he shot and killed a Black suspect who was shooting at him during a foot pursuit.

"There was a vehicle driving downtown at high rates of speed. My patrol sergeant called it in and I just happened to be in the area," Babbin said. "What goes through your head is what's next, what's coming, you always try to think ahead."

The man parked his car and started walking toward Babbin, who was parked in his patrol car, calling out commands to the man through the car's PA system. The man ran and Babbin chased him, telling him to stop or he would Taze him.

"He turned around and looked at me and started firing at me, I returned fire and he was killed."

Babbin was ultimately cleared for the shooting, which was deemed justified.

"I can actually sit here and speak because of the critical incident, how it affected me, how it affected my career, how it affected my life and the lives of others, but deep down I was hired to do a job. I did it correctly. It went back to my training, and I used every level of force that I had," Babbin said.

The incident forever shaped the way he looks at policing from Boston to Brunswick to Montana.

“It was about leadership. I know what was done wrong, what was done right, and what I can do better if it happens under my watch, as a police chief in Hardin," Babbin said.

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