Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Amid allegations of corrupt cops in Lake County, Montana wrestles with how to police its police

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2012 at 3:48 PM

On June 22, the Montana Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee held a hearing on allegations of misconduct involving several law enforcement officers in Lake County. Sarah Hart, an assistant attorney general representing Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST (a quasi-judicial board that polices the police), stood before the committee and proposed two changes in law that would “really, really help POST” investigate complaints against cops in Lake County and elsewhere in the state.

One was to designate POST a criminal justice agency, which would allow it access to confidential criminal justice information. The other was to grant POST investigative authority, a change intended to streamline the way complaints against officers are assessed. Hart asked the committee to draft bills for the 2013 legislature to consider. The committee, chaired by Sen. Jim Shockley, a Republican from Victor, said it would.

But several officers in Montana would rather not give POST these new powers, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir among them. In a July 16 letter to then-POST Council Chair Winnie Ore, Muir, who is also president of the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed concerns about “the manner and direction…that the POST Council has been headed with respect to its role in public safety oversight.” POST’s legislative proposals “have generated significant suspicions that there is an underlying undisclosed motive,” Muir wrote, “which has been occasionally referred to simply as ‘a power grab.’” He singled out POST Director Wayne Ternes.

POST’s legislative proposals were discussed at a two-day POST meeting in Helena two weeks ago, which Muir attended. Muir says there were “a lot of inaccuracies and a lot of misperceptions being perpetrated by Mr. Ternes.” POST ultimately placed Ternes on administrative leave while a third party investigates his conduct.

“We’re taking a step back, taking a breather,” says Steve Barry, POST’s acting chairman since Winnie Ore resigned earlier in the month, a move she says was unrelated to the investigation. Barry expects the investigation to be completed in a couple weeks. Ternes didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Muir says he’s worried that if POST’s proposals become law, the agency, which certifies the state’s law enforcement officers, could “just come in and flex the licensing authority and force people to give statements adverse to their interests.” He wants POST to remain “strictly an administrative agency.”

Shockley still supports POST’s proposals. “It’s good public policy to have an agency look independently at any allegations of misconduct,” he says. He believes the push-back can be explained this way: “Even if the sheriff or chief of police are entirely innocent, they don’t want their [department’s] dirty laundry aired. They’d rather handle it themselves.”

And then Shockley brings it back to what started this whole debate: “There’s something going on in Lake County that the county attorney, sheriff and attorney general do not want known.”

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