by William Skink
Earlier this week I wrote about the Missoula County Attorney’s office and the very lenient criminal results of a felony charge against Sheriff Deputy Doug Hartsell for strangling Brandon Shea while he was handcuffed.
Today the Missoulian is reporting on this case after two years fighting a legal battle to get video and documents released. What emerges is a story of how our criminal justice system allows bad apples like Hartsell to remain in his position of power despite incident after incident of questionable behavior.
My only complaint on the article is that the Missoulian chose a Friday for it to hit the newspaper stands. Let’s start by taking a look at Hartsell’s early days at the Sheriffs office:
Disciplinary documents from 2005, during his first years on the job, show then-Sheriff Mike McMeekin was concerned about Hartsell’s place in the department. On May 2, 2005, Hartsell was suspended without pay for six weeks after he was arrested for a DUI in Ravalli County following a non-injury vehicle crash and alleged stop sign violation, according to the document. The DUI prompted the county attorney’s office to dismiss charges against the other man charged with DUI after Hartsell arrested him, and to review other cases with which Hartsell was associated. McMeekin notes Hartsell was forthcoming about his own DUI with his supervisors, but that this was Hartnell’s second suspension in a month.
This would have been a good time to tell Doug Hartsell that being a Sheriff’s Deputy isn’t a good fit for him, but that didn’t happen. Here’s more from the article:
The internal review into the Shea arrest was not the only incident within the year preceding the arrest that drew the scrutiny of Hartsell’s supervisors. The documents released to the Missoulian revealed Hartsell was the subject of at least four other incidents, two of them related to use of force, that spurred internal communications before the Shea arrest.
An April 12, 2017, investigative report by Undersheriff Rich Maricelli and Detectives Capt. David Conway found allegations that Hartsell had exhibited poor work judgement and was employing ineffective traffic stop procedures were substantiated. Another allegation against Hartsell, that he was too cozy with a “known criminal” whom Hartsell said he was trying to turn into an informant, was not substantiated, according to the report.
The emphasis is mine because I know some followers of this blog who will be particularly interested in that little tidbit of information.
So, this loose cannon of a Sheriff Deputy can’t even do traffic stops without generating complaints, but he was kept on the force where he could have killed Brandon Shea had his fellow deputies not pulled him off SEVERAL TIMES:
Three deputies were on the scene during Shea’s arrest. According to the internal review documents, one of the deputies on scene, the shift supervisor, twice “pulled Hartsell off” Shea but Hartsell repeatedly went back at Shea. After pulling Hartsell off Shea a third time, Hartsell told the deputy “Don’t you ever f—–g pull me off again,” according to the comments in the document.
While Hartsell WAS charged with a felony, the Lake County attorney handling the case quickly entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. One reason given for this was the uncooperativeness of Brandon Shea. While that might be part of the reason, Lake County has had its own serious problems with its Sheriff’s Department, as this 2012 lawsuit details:
Five current or former members of the department filed a lawsuit there against the current sheriff, undersheriff, a detective and a deputy.
Terry Leonard, Steve Kendley, Michael Gehl, Ben Woods and Levi Read say they have been reprimanded, suffered demotions, been denied promotions and subjected to a hostile work environment because of their efforts to expose what they say is law-breaking and corruption within the sheriff’s office.
“The plaintiffs, all of whom have sworn to uphold the laws of the state of Montana, did not want to file this suit,” their attorney, Richard Buley of Missoula, said in a news release announcing the action.
“They have done so only after attempting to bring an end to the illegal and corrupt practices of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department by bringing the issues to the Lake County Attorney’s Office and the Montana Attorney General,” the statement continued. “However, no law enforcement agency in Montana has shown any inclination to enforce the law against law enforcement officers in Lake County.”
For those who don’t remember, Steve Bullock was our Attorney General back then, running his first campaign to become Governor. I’m sure climbing his own career ladder didn’t enter into his calculation to NOT hold Lake County deputies accountable.
With the release of these documents and video, how is the Sheriff responding? Here is the response, as reported by the Missoulian:
“We take all allegations of excessive use of force very seriously. When a report or complaint is made, we conduct a thorough investigation. That is what took place with this incident,” McDermott and Maricelli said in an emailed statement to the Missoulian on Wednesday. “Missoula County Sheriff’s Office also referred the incident to the Montana Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI) for a review of our investigation and to further examine the incident.”
The Sheriff’s office noted in an email to the Missoulian its commitment to transparency, but declined an interview beyond the emailed statement.
While an incident that included the strangulation of a handcuffed prisoner is bad enough, the problems here go far beyond a single incident to the culture of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, and the larger problem of transparency and accountability in any review process.
This is where some kind of civilian oversight committee needs to come into play. What we have in place now allowed Douglas Hartsell to remain a Sheriff Deputy for far too long.