Pepperball limbo 

Mike Burch is disappointed. The veteran County Detention Center employee, suspended with pay while he awaits a decision about his employment future from Sheriff Mike McMeekin, says he’s heard nothing but support from his colleagues in the Detention Center for his leak of an incident report describing a fellow detention officer’s use of a pepperball gun to subdue a rowdy inmate, and the officer’s subsequent “torture” of the inmate by confining her in a restraint chair for upward of half an hour before being allowed to decontaminate. But the public statement of support Burch says he was promised has not been forthcoming.

“I’ve been really disillusioned with my co-workers who were supposedly all for me, but haven’t stepped up to the plate. I feel like I’ve been left to hang out and dry,” he says.

Meanwhile, the FBI has reportedly concluded its investigation of the incident and determined that the inmate’s civil rights were not violated.

The Montana Advocacy Program (MAP), on the other hand, recently announced its own investigation of the pepperball incident. Burch contacted MAP, along with the FBI and the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, shortly after the incident, and MAP Director Bernie Franks-Ongoy confirms that her organization has opened an investigation of the potential institutional abuse and is presently gathering information, including photographs of the inmate taken shortly after the incident, and formulating strategy. MAP has also requested copies of video recording the incident. Franks-Ongoy says a report or a lawsuit or both are among MAP’s possible courses of action.

Burch, meanwhile, remains in limbo. County policy, he says, requires a decision by McMeekin within 15 days of an administrative review board’s recommendation on Burch’s future with the department, a deadline long passed, but he has yet to receive notice. Sheriff McMeekin told the Missoulian Aug. 15 he was waiting for the conclusion of the FBI investigation before making a decision. Now that that investigation is concluded, Burch says, he expects notice of his termination any day now, at which point he intends to go through a formal grievance process with the county to fight his dismissal. But if it goes the other way and Burch is retained, he says, he’ll be more than happy to go back to work.

“Definitely, I’d go back,” Burch says. “And keep fighting to straighten that place out.”

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