A former deputy who left the Missoula County Sheriff's Office while under an internal investigation for alleged excessive use of force is now under criminal investigation by the Montana Department of Justice.
Eric Sell, spokesman for the department, told the Missoulian on Wednesday that the DOJ is opening the investigation into Douglas Hartsell.
While a Missoula County deputy, Hartsell was involved in the November arrest of a man in East Missoula. After the incident, three other deputies at the scene reported concerns about Hartsell’s treatment of the handcuffed man while he was being put into a patrol vehicle, Sheriff T.J. McDermott told the Missoulian in April.
“We take allegations of excessive use of force very seriously,” McDermott said Wednesday. “When they occur, we investigate.”
Brandon Shea, the 20-year-old man arrested in the November incident, told the Missoulian earlier this year that throughout the incident Hartsell was yelling at him, including comments he felt were inappropriate. At one point, Shea said Hartsell lifted him up off the ground using a chain Shea wears around his neck, strangling him to the point he couldn’t breathe.
Shea agreed that he had been resisting arrest, and had kicked out when he was being put in a patrol vehicle, hitting Hartsell. McDermott told the Missoulian reports said that after the kick, Shea was pulled back out and put in leg restraints. Shea’s court filings make no reference to the incident in the patrol car, and he was not charged with assaulting an officer.
Shea said after the kick he remembered being pulled back out, hitting his head hard on the ground, and that one of the deputies then got on top of him, adding that because of the weight he again wasn’t able to breathe.
According to court records, an internal investigation was started in January concerning Hartsell’s alleged excessive use of force. Hartsell went on medical leave in late November for an unrelated injury.
McDermott said the delay in the start of the investigation was partly due to staffing changes in the department and partly because the allegations by the other deputies were not presented to supervisors until a couple of weeks after the incident.
Records say Hartsell never returned to work and never took part in the internal investigation. Last month, the sheriff’s office was notified that Hartsell would not be able to come back to work for medical reasons, and Hartsell left the department under medical retirement.
When Hartsell left, the internal investigation was closed without a result, McDermott said, although what had been learned was sent to state investigators for a review to determine if a criminal investigation was warranted.
Sell told the Missoulian on Wednesday that after completing the review, the DOJ's Division of Criminal Investigation chose to open a case. A copy of the investigation, once complete, will likely be sent to both state prosecutors and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to determine if charges are warranted, Sell said.
Sell declined to comment on the specific criminal allegations being investigated, and said there is no timeline for how long the investigation is expected to take.
McDermott said now that the matter is in the state's hands, his department has no further investigation role in the Hartsell matter, but will be cooperating and supporting the state in any way they are asked.
The Missoulian made public records requests at the start of the year for information on the investigation, as well as body camera footage from the November incident. At the newspaper’s request, Missoula County filed a court proceeding to have those records reviewed by a judge to determine what should be released.
That litigation is still active, and Hartsell has hired an attorney and filed to intervene in the case. Hartsell currently has a deadline to file a court briefing on the subject by next week.
Hartsell’s attorney, Milt Datsopolous, told the Missoulian on Wednesday that his office requested a copy of the internal investigation from the sheriff’s office, but never received it. Datsopolous said he was still working to gather more information and declined to comment until he had a more complete picture of the specifics of the investigation.
Hartsell had previously worked for the Missoula County Sheriff's Office for two years before resigning in 2005 after being charged with drunk driving, and was rehired by McDermott as a Missoula deputy in 2016.