A state oversight group released this week the results of its investigation into the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department’s alleged abuse of a cognitively disabled and mentally ill woman at the county jail in 2006. The Adele Report, which connects available information from the incident to a bounty of state code violations, appeared 28 months after allegations surfaced of cruel and unusual treatment at the lockup.
Investigators and officials at Disability Rights Montana (DRM), a federally funded legal advocacy group in Helena, allege Sheriff Mike McMeekin and senior jail official Capt. Susan Hintz obstructed the discovery process at every turn. The group claims the pair inhibited the interviewing of several witnesses, withheld pieces of evidence and, in one incident, furnished a false list of cellblock prisoners.
“We either had to file suit to get the evidence or go ahead with the report,” explains Alexandra Volkerts, a senior attorney with DRM and investigator for the Adele Report. “We figured that we had enough to show that there had been abuse.”
DRM specifically sought an audiotape that could corroborate testimony by former Detention Officer Mike Burch that stated deputies refused to allow the woman to rinse off chemical irritant before placing her in a restraint chair. Prior to that moment, video evidence attained by the Independent in 2007 shows the woman was hit with six pepperball pellets as she was crying against the wall of her cell.
In 2006, McMeekin defended his officers’ actions as necessary to prevent the woman from harming herself and others. Asked if the DRM findings had changed his mind, he deferred, saying the department will release a detailed response to all allegations in December.
“The matter is in litigation, in federal court, and so I can’t comment specifically,” McMeekin wrote in a prepared statement. “The matter has been reviewed, and we’re working on additional training, and additional steps that can possibly be taken to better deal with this type of situation.”
County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg also declined to comment on either the report or the victim’s pending lawsuit, stating the department had secured outside counsel. According to the court records, a settlement conference for the lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 20.
By all available accounts, no detention officer involved in the incident—except Burch, who was fired in 2006 for leaking a police report to the media—has been disciplined by the department.