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T.J. McDermott

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott

A Missoula County sheriff’s deputy who is still under investigation for allegations of excessive use of force during an arrest in November is no longer employed, although he is leaving the department because of an unrelated injury.

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott sent an email to the department on Thursday saying that Deputy Douglas Hartsell was no longer employed as a deputy, effective immediately.

The sheriff told the Missoulian Friday that Hartsell remains the subject of an investigation after other deputies complained about Hartsell’s treatment of a handcuffed man during a November arrest. McDermott said he was told this week that the deputy was precluded from returning to work because of an injury sustained on the job.

Hartsell has not been working since the end of November, when he went on medical leave due to the injury.

The use of force investigation, which started internally in the sheriff’s office, eventually was referred to the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation for completion, McDermott said. To his knowledge, that investigation is still active, and he said DCI would have the authority to look at Hartsell’s alleged conduct both from a use of force policy position and as a potential criminal matter.

“Any time there’s an allegation of excessive use of force, we investigate,” McDermott said. “We take these allegations seriously.”

***

On Nov. 19, four Missoula County sheriff’s deputies were sent to Toliver Loop in East Missoula after 20-year-old Brandon Shea’s mother reported that he was breaking things in the home and got into a fight with his brother, according to court records. The filings also indicate Shea was intoxicated, which Shea and his mother confirmed when they spoke with the Missoulian in March about the incident.

Shea was not at the home when officers arrived, but the deputies were called back shortly after when he returned. Court records said Shea was “verbally uncooperative and was threatening to harm the deputies,” who allegedly had to bring out their TASER devices during the arrest.

An affidavit in the case said Shea was eventually handcuffed, but began to jerk and lunge away as he was led to a patrol vehicle. The filing said he “had to be taken to the ground” a second time to get control over him. When he tried to kick the deputies while on the ground, the officers removed his boots and put leg cuffs on him, the affidavit said.

Shea told the Missoulian that throughout the incident one of the deputies — Hartsell, the same one he later kicked — was yelling at him, including comments he felt were inappropriate. He agreed that through most of the incident he was uncooperative and tried to pull away from officers.

“I was yelling back at him. I was cussing at him,” Shea said.

He was first handcuffed when he was told to lie down on his stomach with his hands behind his head. Shea says after being cuffed, the same officer who was yelling at him picked him up from behind by his hands and a chain with a cross that Shea wears around his neck, strangling him to the point he couldn’t breathe.

“‘Stop resisting or I’m going to (expletive) tase you’” Shea said he clearly remembered the deputy yelling at him.

He said he was pushed up against a patrol vehicle, and hit his head hard against the window. Shea said he was then thrown back to the ground and a deputy got on top of him. With the officer’s knees in his back, Shea said he couldn’t breath, but continued to struggle.

McDermott said Friday that other deputies at the scene made internal allegations of excessive force by Hartsell, specifically related to the deputy’s alleged actions while the handcuffed Shea was being put into a patrol car for transport.

The sheriff said the reports indicated that while being put into the back seat of the vehicle, Shea kicked out, hitting Hartsell in the groin, who then pulled him back out of the vehicle and placed leg restraints on him.

“The deputies on scene that brought this case forward had concerns in the manner of which the subject was removed from the patrol car and treated on the ground,” McDermott said.

Court records do not refer to what happened when Shea was put into the patrol car, and make no references to him being removed from it.

Shea told the Missoulian that he remembers kicking out and feeling his foot make contact with a deputy when he was being loaded into the back seat of a patrol SUV, and remembers immediately being pulled back out.

“I got my head hit hard when I was pulled out. I hit my head on the concrete. I had a big lump on my head for a while,” Shea said.

His vision went blurry, and Shea said after that point his memory isn’t very clear. He said he does recall, after being pulled out of the patrol vehicle, that a deputy got on top of him again. He said he couldn’t breathe, which he believes is due to the officer's weight, and said he was placed in ankle cuffs. Shea said he had stopped struggling by this point and was put back into the patrol vehicle.

He said he doesn’t remember arriving at the jail or spending the first night in his cell.

Shea was charged with misdemeanors for criminal mischief, partner or family member assault and resisting arrest. Two days later, he made his first appearance in Missoula County Justice Court and pleaded guilty to all three charges. On Nov. 28, he received a six-month, fully suspended, jail sentence, along with various fines and other court conditions.

***

In January, the Missoulian made a series of records requests with the county regarding Hartsell’s use of force investigation. In February, the newspaper made additional records requests about the incident, including requests for the footage from Hartsell’s body camera during the arrest, as well as the body camera footage of the other three deputies at the scene. The Missoulian also requested post-incident memos believed to have been written by the other deputies at the November arrest, which would be in line with the internal complaints that the sheriff said started the investigation.

The records were not turned over. At the Missoulian’s request, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office filed civil litigation last month to have a judge review the records the newspaper is seeking and determine what will be released.

McDermott said Friday he believes his department is very close to releasing the records.

“We’re moving forward rapidly and look forward to sharing the information that was revealed during our internal investigation but we want to make sure we protect the people involved, the witnesses and victims before we do that,” he said.

According to court filings in the litigation, Hartsell — through an attorney — has objected to the release of records about the internal investigation. Hartsell’s attorney Milt Datsopolous did not return a request for comment on Friday.

***

Although the sheriff’s email to staff Thursday said Hartsell’s employment ended immediately, county human resources director Patricia Baumgart said Friday afternoon that Hartsell was still employed.

Erica Grinde, the county’s director of risk management and benefits, confirmed that Hartsell had a workers’ compensation claim regarding an on-the-job injury, and the county was told last month that his medical providers had made the decision he would not be able to return to work.

Grinde said her understanding is that the workers’ compensation claim case would be closing “soon,” but neither she nor Baumgart was sure if Hartsell was applying for a medical retirement or if he would simply be resigning.

McDermott said he was told an agreement between Hartsell and the state related to his injury and workers’ compensation was approved, and that the sheriff sent the email to staff after being told Hartsell would not be able to return to work due to his injury.

Hartsell previously worked as a Missoula deputy for two years from 2003 to 2005 before resigning after being charged with drunk driving. He was rehired as a Missoula deputy in June 2016 under McDermott’s administration.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.