As much as certain people would love to see it go away, the saga of county detention center vet Mike Burch—and the storm he stirred up in early July by leaking an incident report describing a fellow detention officer’s use of a pepperball gun on a confined and mentally ill female inmate—continues unabated. But unlike most issues, which tend toward clarity over time, this one seems to just get muddier.
The Missoulian recently reported that an FBI report concluding that the inmate’s civil rights had not been violated was complete, seemingly clearing the way for Sheriff Mike McMeekin to make a decision regarding Burch’s fate, in limbo since he was suspended with pay July 10 pending a long-since completed review board. But when we followed up with McMeekin late last week, we were informed that he had in fact yet to receive a written report from the FBI, and would not make a decision on Burch’s future until he did.
On another front, we asked Sheriff McMeekin for the status of the investigation of Sgt. Jason Sorini—the pepperball shooter—that County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg had informed us was being undertaken. That investigation is important, because its very existence was presented as the underpinning of public allegations by McMeekin and Van Valkenburg that Burch’s leak constituted the unauthorized dissemination of confidential criminal justice information. The leaked report, in other words, was potential evidence in an investigation of Sgt. Sorini’s actions.
But asked last week for its status, McMeekin wrote, “I have not ordered an internal investigation of Sergeant Sorini, nor do I intend to,” suggesting that we might be confusing an “investigation” with “the department’s routine administrative review of the incident,” which led to McMeekin’s public avowal of the appropriateness of Sorini’s actions.
But a “routine administrative review” is not a criminal investigation—thus re-raising the original question: where’s the confidential criminal justice information in the leaked incident report?
Following McMeekin’s advice, we turned the question back to Van Valkenburg, who suddenly had no idea.
“You seem to know more about it than I do,” he told us Wednesday. “So why don’t you just go ahead and write whatever you’re going to write.”
But that’s not the only flank on which the county seems to be punting its responsibilities. In response to the Independent’s request for video of the incident—a request also made by the Missoulian—Missoula County Attorney Mike Sehestedt filed suit in Missoula’s Fourth Judicial District Court, naming the Independent, the Missoulian and the inmate as defendants, seeking a declaratory judgment on whether or not to release the video to the media. The legal strategy, an increasingly common ploy by governmental entities faced with public information requests, accomplishes two things: It takes the governmental entity at least temporarily out of the decision-making hot seat, and it puts the onus on the newspapers to mount a legal defense in pursuit of clarity.
“As soon as the various inquiries and reviews are completed,” McMeekin wrote us, “I plan to disseminate a comprehensive body of information that will allow people to arrive at their own objective, informed decision.”
We continue to look forward to that day.