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Petty politics result in bad look for sheriff's department

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Last week, an investigator from the Human Rights Bureau concluded that Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott discriminated against former political rival Josh Clark. Clark was a captain and then undersheriff under Carl Ibsen, but was transferred to late-night patrol when McDermott took office. The new sheriff insisted that his decision to reassign Clark was not political, but investigator Josh Manning found it was.

McDermott declined to speak to reporters about that conclusion, which is odd, because the Human Rights Bureau basically announced that he did the thing he spent the last nine months saying he did not do. You'd think now would be the time to get his side of the story out there so we could understand why Manning is mistaken. But at the moment a third party concluded he discriminated against Clark, McDermott would not speak to the press.

He did not technically refuse comment, though. He merely referred questions to his lawyer, Deputy County Attorney Erica Grinde, who said they couldn't answer because the matter was still being resolved.

"I would say I want to stress while the investigative portion of this has come to a conclusion, the Human Rights Bureau remains in control of the process," Grinde told the Missoulian. "And we trust the process and feel the process works and resolves these matters."

Many people who trust the process might say the investigator's conclusion did resolve the matter. If you feel the process works, you might be tempted to say McDermott discriminated against Clark.

Now would be the time for our sheriff to explain why he did that, or to lay out a plan to prevent discrimination in the future, or even just to break down and explain why Clark is a jerk while we all frantically transcribe his remarks. But McDermott did none of those things. He simply informed the press, through his attorney, that he was not going to say anything.

It sounds like he trusts the process to let him off the hook. Clark's attorney, Quentin Rhoades, said his client would seek a six-figure settlement. Whatever the final number is, McDermott won't pay it. Missoula County will. I submit that since we will be footing the bill, the sheriff should feel obligated to tell us why his first official act as sheriff was to cost us a bunch of money.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

But McDermott has not even acknowledged that an impartial investigator says he discriminated. It is almost as if he believed that so long as he refuses to talk about what he apparently did, he will suffer no consequences. That's an alarming position for the new sheriff to take, since his agency seems to be suffering from a systemic problem.

Clark is not the first member of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department to file a discrimination complaint in the last two years. He is not even the third. In August, the county reached a voluntary no-fault settlement with Capt. Mike Dominick, who was reassigned to the county attorney's office after alleging that McDermott transferred him to the evidence warehouse as punishment for supporting Clark in last year's primary. As part of the settlement, Dominick got $20,000.

In 2013, now-Undersheriff Jason Johnson and McDermott himself filed their own Human Rights Bureau complaints against Ibsen, also alleging political discrimination. Each man got a $60,000 settlement. The taxpayers of Missoula got to pay that money. We also got the impression that our sheriff's department was operating on the spoils system.

McDermott has done little to convince us otherwise. In the report on his investigation, Manning noted that two men McDermott promoted to captain—sergeants Tony Rio and Bill Burt—were also the two largest individual donors to his campaign. That looks bad. But perhaps the most damning assessment of how the department operates came in these two sentences:

"The investigator was troubled throughout this process by the petty personal attacks both parties used to color the way the Bureau would look at the people involved and left those details out of the report," Manning wrote. "It did not paint a good portrait of the people responsible for the public safety of one of Montana's most populous counties."

The people responsible for the public safety of Missoula County have been sitting for a bad portrait two years now. Maybe it looks worse than it is—but how can we know when McDermott won't talk to us?

Two years of settlements and the results of Manning's investigation have drawn a picture of a sheriff's department that plays politics, hard, in contravention of the rules we set out for it. McDermott should start talking soon, because you know what they say about a thousand words.

Dan Brooks writes about rhetoric and lived experience at combatblog.net.

This column was updated Sept. 10.

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