Community members weigh in on allegations of police corruption
In the past few weeks, law enforcement in Lake County has been the subject of extensive media coverage regarding allegations of corruption in several local agencies, mainly the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. The alleged misconduct spans from accusations of poaching by Sheriff’s deputies and Tribal Law and Order officers, a deputy lying about his military career, and even a alleged cover-up in 2004 of a fatal boating accident by Sheriff’s deputies and perhaps even the Sheriff.
Only one person has been charged in what one newspaper called “a hive of law enforcement misconduct in Lake County” — Jesse Jacobs, who was enrolled in the Lake County Sheriff's Office's reserve training program at the time of the alleged crime, was charged In Flathead County with two counts of felony poaching in August 2010. A record of an investigation by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks into the matter shows detailed interviews with other local law enforcement officers alleging that Jacobs was not alone in his crime but was part of a larger poaching ring that even some administrators in the Sheriff’s Office were either complicit with or involved in themselves.
The Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, an ethics council with the ability to make recommendations to prosecutors, has investigated and according to POST director Wayne Ternes, is now investigating claims of corruption among Lake County law enforcement. Regardless of what legal proceedings may or may not result from the investigations, Ternes told the Flathead Beacon last week that “the sheer number of complaints lodged against Lake County law enforcement officers is unprecedented in his experience, as is the fact that every major law agency within a single geographical area is potentially implicated, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Law and Order, Polson Police Department, Ronan Police Department and Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”
It’s not the first time in recent history that Lake County law enforcement has been under public scrutiny from beyond the county’s borders. Last year’s hotly contested race for Sheriff drew media attention from the likes of Time magazine. Adding to the controversy, local residents filed several complaints with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices claiming two of the three candidates had violated campaign laws (the last complaint under review was rejected by the Commissioner last month). With the latest unfavorable spotlight shining on the Sheriff’s Office, opinions on the validity of the allegations are as varied as the accusations themselves. Many citizens say they’re increasingly concerned about issues like safety, trust, communication and even their civil rights where Lake County law enforcement is involved. Others believe there’s no way to really know the truth of the situation, but most seem to agree the best way to get to the bottom of the issue is to air out all the allegations.
“I thought it was about time someone talked about the corruption,” St. Ignatius resident Henry Owens said.
“Since we are so small and there is so much gossip that goes around, you don’t know what is true and what is false,” Cherie Garcelon of Arlee said. “If these accusations are true, that would be disturbing, because these are the people that are supposed to keep you safe.”
Charlo woman who asked to remain anonymous pointed out that “you can’t believe everything you hear.
"If it is corrupt, we need to get it out of there,” she added. “But if this is all false or political chatter, we need to ignore it.”
As disturbing as the allegations are, “just like with everything, there is corruption everywhere,” explained one woman who asked to be called only by her first name, Carol. “If there is no one to police the police … it’s part of the problem of government.”
Carol said seeing a close friend mistreated by police shook her trust in local law enforcement, and now she “stays away from that area.”
Another St. Ignatius man drew on personal experience as evidence that there’s plenty of good in the Sheriff’s Office.
“I’m a little biased. My father was Harold Mitchell, who was murdered, and now (Clifford) Old Horn is sitting in prison for 100 years,” Darryll Mitchell said. “Jay Doyle stuck with it for six years. It was a cold case. We were not close. He did help us out. If he wasn’t so diligent, we don’t know if we would have got results. He was diligent when it came to my father’s case, so we know Jay on that level.”
One Ronan resident who requested to remain anonymous is a former Lake County Sheriff’s Office employee who says he believes all of the allegations are true.
“I think everything is true; I used to work there,” he said. “It’s been this way for years.”
For local authorities to regain his trust, he’d need to see an entire new administration, new Sheriff and a zero tolerance policy concerning how employees behave and conduct themselves.
“They’re human, and everyone makes mistakes, but nobody’s above the law,” another Polson man added.
“They got a tough job in a tough world.”