Omissions from Missoulian report on Missoula County jail abuse suggests a cover-up

Shortly before the Fourth of July, a woman inmate at the Missoula County jail was subdued with seven pepperball bullets and then tied to a chair for over forty minutes before being decontaminated. The material in the bullets is a weaker form of the pepper spray used to ward off grizzly bears – symptoms from contact with the powder include vomiting, burning skin, loss of breath, and mucus membranes “go into overdrive,” i.e., lots of snot.

A Missoula County detention officer, Mike Burch, thought the process went overboard. Way overboard. He gave a copy of the report to the Missoulian, fully aware that it belonged to Missoula County and that he faced disciplinary action for his whistle blowing, if not dismissal.

Two stories subsequently appeared in local papers. One written by Tristan Scott of the Missoulian, the second by Brad Tyer of the Missoula Independent. And that’s where my story starts.

First, let me say I admit I don’t know exactly what transpired at the jail, and how threatening the actions of the woman or proper the reactions of the officer. It’s easy to criticize officers for mistakes, but they often have to make decisions quickly and under extreme stress. What’s indisputable is that the woman inmate suffered only minor injuries – welts where the pepperballs struck her – and has since left the jail. Whether the action of the officers involved in the incident warrant dismissal or small punishments is not what I’m writing about.

I’m writing about the two accounts linked to, above, and how much they differ.

Read them both now.

You’ll notice Scott’s version leaves out some details – some important details – that Tyer reports. Here are the more important points Scott leaves out:

–The inmate does, in part comply with officers before being pepper-gunned, although she was essentially uncooperative.

–The inmate was hit with five pepperballs, four of which exploded, dousing her with “pepper powder,” after which the inmate was “temporarily disoriented” and sat down on her bunk.

–After refusing to lie down on the bunk, the officer shot two more pepperballs at the wall near her face.

–The inmate’s injuries were cleared by a nurse, after which the inmate was again tied to a restraint chair

–The inmate was told “if she could remain compliant for the next 10 minutes she would be…decontaminated…”

–The inmate was decontaminated 44 minutes later

–Burch came forward only after jail supervisors were told by administrators over the incident “to let it lie”

Here are other salient details gotten from whistle blower Burch that are missing from Scott’s report:

…[according to Burch] the report contains no justifiable defense for inundating an incarcerated woman with seven rounds of Capsicum powder at a range of three to five yards. To the extent that she could be considered a suicide risk, he says, the detention center has protocols in place for monitoring and/or restraining such inmates well shy of assault with Capsicum powder—protocols the incident report makes no mention of being enacted.

For another, Burch says, “She was in a cell; she really didn’t pose a credible threat to herself or the officers. Verbally is how it should have happened. Three officers enter, one takes the left arm, one takes the right arm, one takes her head, hook her up [to the restraint chair]. I would have had the nurse examine her. [Sorini] didn’t want to deal with her so he took the shortest route to resolving the situation, instead of the correct route. No ifs ands or butts.”

Furthermore, Scott misses Burch’s claim that leaving her in a restraint “violates detention policy, if not the victim’s civil rights,” and that Montana State Prison policy “is that decontamination be effected ‘as soon as practical.’”

(To me, tying someone to a chair with their skin and clothes doused in a substance that causes vomiting, difficulty breathing, burning skin, and free-flowing mucous for 45 minutes amounts to torture.)

Instead, Scott colors Burch with “the demeanor of a martyr,” describes pepperball gun as having “been lauded by law enforcement communities across the country,” fails to mention the woman’s restraint while contaminated with pepper powder for over forty minutes, quotes Sheriff McMeekin on the pepperballing officer — “[his] decisions were certainly within acceptable parameters” — and on Burch – a “malcontent.” (Just why Burch may be considered a malcontent appear only in Tyer’s report. Burch: “This hasn’t been an isolated incident…”)

The real story now isn’t whether an officer violated an inmate’s basic civil rights, it’s whether the Sheriff, in collusion with the Missoulian, is covering the story up.

Based on the egregious omissions from Scott’s story, it might appear so.

Good thing Scott’s email is on the report: I can ask him!

Update:  I just got off the phone with Tristan Scott, and after our conversation, I hereby strike the suspicion that Scott — or a Missoulian editor — were colluding with county authorities to cover up information. Instead, it seems that reportorial judgement, space constraints, and deadline pressure caused Scott to omit some key facts of the story.

  1. Great, great post. You rarely get to see such a clear example of two entirely different reports of the same event. The degree to which mainstream journalism in this state, and this country, defer to authority figures in most of their reporting is truly troubling. It’s just so easy to take official accounts and press releases and re-word them, rather than examine an issue more thoroughly.

  1. 1 4&20 blackbirds » Blog Archive » Missoula County Jail Update

    […] Omissions from Missoulian report on Missoula County jail abuse suggests a cover-up […]

  2. 2 McMeekin, Detention Center panned in report on 2006 abuse of detainee « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] regular, long-term readers might remember a few scathing posts I wrote, first lambasting reporter Tristan Scott, then Sherriff McMeekin for letting the detention center discipline and training degrade to allow […]

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