Bad day in jail 

A leaked incident report exposes frightening tactics and puts a detention center veteran under the gun

On July 2, at approximately 8 p.m., a Missoula City police officer delivered a woman arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct to the Missoula County Detention Center on Mullan Road. The city officer and the prisoner were met in the facility’s vehicle sallyport by seven detention officers who escorted the new inmate inside and attempted to pat her down. The woman became “combative” to the point that it took all seven officers to control her. Shortly afterward, the woman was placed in the facility’s “restraint chair” and shackled with leg irons while she threatened officers with violence and spoke of suicide. After she calmed down, the inmate was taken to 2CL1, a maximum-security cell under constant video surveillance, where she was apparently shackled in another restraint chair.

That chronology is contained in an internal Detention Center Incident Report written by detention officer J. Sorini (the document identifies officers only by first initial and last name), and if it stopped there, the report’s contents might be chalked up as just another pain-in-the-ass night at county lock-up. But the report doesn’t stop there. It continues through 10:30 p.m., when Sorini authorized the inmate’s release from the second restraint chair, whereupon she fell asleep in her bunk. It continues through 2:40 a.m., when a guard called to inform Sorini that the woman had awakened and begun screaming for her father, kicking her cell door and banging her head against the walls. As Sorini headed for Unit 2 to respond, he received a second call informing him that the inmate had climbed atop the desk in her cell and was threatening to jump head first in an attempt to kill herself, and to kill any officer who entered the cell to try to stop her.

Sorini later wrote that at this point, still on his way to Unit 2, he decided “that due to the situation, and [the inmate’s] recent uncooperative history, I would employ the use of the Pepperball gun to attempt to gain control of the situation.”

The situation, however, was headed the opposite direction.

Arriving at cell 2CL1, Sorini found the inmate on top of the desk. He ordered her to get down, step to the cell door and place her hands out the food hatch. She ignored him, screaming. A second officer, A. Flores, repeated the command, whereupon the woman stepped down off the desk, moved to her bunk, and stood on top of it. Sorini told Flores to open the food hatch and asked a third officer, N. Mattix, to begin videotaping the confrontation.

“Once the hatch was open,” Sorini wrote, “I knelt in front of it and placed the barrel of the Pepperball gun through the opening. I then ordered [the inmate] to face the wall behind her, kneel on the bunk and place her hands behind her back. [The inmate] failed to comply and once again started to scream. I gave the same directive to her once again and in response she stepped down off of the bunk and leaned against the east wall of the cell. She continued to scream and failed to follow my orders once again. I ordered [her] to return to the bunk and comply with my orders or force would be used against her to gain her compliance. In response [she] began to scream louder and placed her right hand over her eyes.”

Then, at 2:51 a.m., Sorini opened fire with the pepperball gun, a firearm designed to launch paintball-like pellets that explode on contact, dispersing a dry powdered form of Oleoresin Capsicum, or pepper spray.

Sorini fired five rounds at the woman’s torso. Two rounds struck her left abdominal area, with one of these failing to break and bouncing off. One round struck her left forearm, and two hit her in the left flank. Sorini describes the inmate as “temporarily disoriented” by the barrage, but writes that she “quickly recovered” and sat down on her bunk. “As she did this I gave her several loud verbal commands stating ‘Lay face down on the bunk, now, now, now.” The inmate began to scream again and Sorini continued to tell her to lie down on her bunk. When she failed to comply, Sorini tried to shoot another round at the wall next to her “to saturate the area that she was sitting in with ‘OC’ powder,” but the gun malfunctioned and the round didn’t fire. Sorini shook the gun to feed the pellets into the chamber and fired twice more at the wall, successfully, “causing a copious amount of ‘OC’ powder to contaminate the area.” Sorini again directed the inmate to lay face down on her bunk. Finally, coughing, she ceased resisting and complied. Sorini then signaled the control room to open the cell door, whereupon officers under his command entered the cell, escorted the troublesome inmate out and placed her back in the restraint chair in an adjacent cell. Then Sorini and two other officers used a mop to decontaminate cell 2CL1. At 3:12 a.m., nurse Jackie Smith checked the inmate’s welts and cleared the patient. “At this point,” Sorini wrote, “I explained to [the inmate] that if she could remain compliant for the next 10 minutes she would be cleaned up and decontaminated,” which procedure amounts to a shower to wash off the powder and baby shampoo to cleanse the eyes. Finally, at 3:35 a.m., 44 minutes after Sorini began pelting her with the pepper balls, the inmate was offered an opportunity to shower, after which she was placed in a “suicide smock” and returned to cell 2CL1. At 6:11 a.m., as officer Sorini concluded his report, “she remain[ed] cooperative in her cell.”

Her current whereabouts are unconfirmed.

•••

When six-and-a-half year department veteran and Detention Officer First Grade Mike Burch learned of the events of July 2, he was appalled. Burch received the news when upset detention officers on the shift succeeding Sorini’s called him at home to ask if he’d heard about the incident. When Burch arrived at work Monday morning he pulled up Sorini’s report and read it. “It just floored me,” he says now.

For one thing, Burch says, the report contains no justifiable defense for inundating an incarcerated woman with seven rounds of Capsicum powder at a range of three to five yards. To the extent that she could be considered a suicide risk, he says, the detention center has protocols in place for monitoring and/or restraining such inmates well shy of assault with Capsicum powder—protocols the incident report makes no mention of being enacted.

For another, Burch says, “She was in a cell; she really didn’t pose a credible threat to herself or the officers. Verbally is how it should have happened. Three officers enter, one takes the left arm, one takes the right arm, one takes her head, hook her up [to the restraint chair]. I would have had the nurse examine her. [Sorini] didn’t want to deal with her so he took the shortest route to resolving the situation, instead of the correct route. No ifs ands or butts.”

Finally, Burch says, Sorini’s use of the decontamination shower as a lever to gain the inmate’s cooperation—“…if she could remain compliant for the next 10 minutes she would be cleaned up and decontaminated” in Sorini’s words—violates detention center policy, if not the inmate’s civil rights: “We’ve always been told you decontaminate them right away [upon restraining the subject]. It’s not a bargaining chip for sure.”

The detention center’s precise policy on decontamination of pepper-sprayed inmates, if it has one, could not be ascertained by press time. By point of comparison, Montana State Prison policy, according to spokesman Bob Anez, is that decontamination be effected “as soon as practical.”

Sorini’s target, according to the officer’s own timeline, spent upwards of 40 minutes contaminated with Capsicum powder, most of that time locked down in a restraint chair. “There’s no way you’d pepper someone then put them in the chair without decontaminating her first,” Burch says.

Burch has been doused with OC powder himself, during training. The substance is a milder version of bear spray, and it brings on loss of breath, gagging and vomiting. The victim’s mucous membranes go into overdrive, they blow snot, their eyes water, their skin burns.

Having read the report, and having watched as a supervisor tried to address the incident with jail administrators only to be told to let it lie, Burch printed a copy of Sorini’s report and put it in the hands of Missoulian reporter Tristan Scott. (The Independent’s copy of the report was delivered by an anonymous third party.) Burch was off work the following day, July 4, and took vacation for the remainder of the week. He returned to work Monday, July 10, to discover that inquiries from the Missoulian had alerted the sheriff’s department to the leak, and that his coworkers had been pressured until one of them named Burch as the leaker. According to Burch, Undersheriff Mike Dominick called Burch into his office to inform him that he was suspended with pay pending an as-yet-unscheduled review board to address what Sheriff Mike McMeekin later characterized to the Independent as Burch’s potential “unauthorized dissemination of confidential criminal justice information,” and that he might face criminal charges. Burch says he fully expects to be fired before the week is out, though he also plans to retain legal counsel to fight any such decision.

Aside from confirming that Burch has been called to appear before a review board and raising the possibility of a criminal charge of “official misconduct,” Sheriff McMeekin declined to answer questions about the incident, referring further inquiries to the Missoula County Attorney’s office. County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said Tuesday he had yet to read the leaked report, but said, “Based on what I know, it would appear that the dissemination of this report to the news media is a violation of laws regarding confidential criminal justice information, and I intend to investigate that and determine if there is a prosecutable violation of law in that regard.”

Asked how Sorini’s report, which contains no information about the assaulted inmate’s alleged crime, might qualify as confidential criminal justice information, Van Valkenburg clarifies that the Sheriff’s Department is undertaking an administrative review regarding officer Sorini’s use of force, and so Sorini’s report may be considered as evidence in that internal investigation.

Burch, meanwhile, seems ready to take whatever medicine the county attorney ultimately deems fit to administer. At the time he delivered Sorini’s report to the Missoulian, Burch says, he was unaware of any administrative review into Sorini’s actions, and didn’t consider that his whistleblowing might be construed as criminal. Nevertheless, he expected blowback. While he waits for it to arrive, he’s contacted A.W.A.R.E., a Montana mental health and disabilities service provider, and the FBI regarding possible violations of the inmate’s civil rights.

“This is bigger than me,” Burch says. “This hasn’t been an isolated incident, and there have been fights [at the detention center] before about why isn’t the truly guilty person gone. Instead they persecute the person who questions.”

btyer@missoulanews.com

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