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“Undoubtedly this will be a challenge for anyone who becomes sheriff because the department is divided,” says Missoula County sheriff candidate T.J. McDermott. “I am committed to bringing the department back together, and I will do so by leading by example and requiring my staff to do the same.”

It’s a dreary afternoon in an even drearier office. Missoula County sheriff candidate Detective Sgt. T.J. McDermott sits behind his desk reviewing cases, interrupted occasionally by colleagues ducking inside the dimly lit room to chat.

He jokes to visitors to watch their step – the floor may give way underneath their feet. One of the lights above flickers even when properly installed and no photos hang from the blank white walls.

“It used to be the evidence closet,” McDermott explains.

The impersonal digs are only to be endured a few weeks more, though – until the sheriff’s department moves downstairs in the Missoula County Courthouse to a newly renovated space.

But perhaps the department’s physical disarray is an outward reminder of the organizational chaos that has rocked the county’s law enforcement agency in the months leading up to June’s winner-take-all primary election.

In the past year, the county has settled multiple claims of political discrimination that McDermott and would-be undersheriff Detective Jason Johnson brought forth, setting the stage for June’s vote. Missoula County paid out a total of $120,000 after an investigator found both allegations of discrimination had merit.

Another deputy, Rebecca Birket brought forth a third claim alleging gender discrimination after the administration doggedly pursued details of a kiss she shared with a married deputy. The kiss apparently happened while she was off-duty and at home.

Critics have argued the allegations were brought forth as part of McDermott’s campaign strategy – a claim that Johnson and McDermott firmly deny.

“What frustrates me personally is that I wish people would remember that we had an outside investigator come and look at these claims,” Johnson said. “If it was just a political move, I would think it would be unfounded.”

***

On this McDermott and his opponents, sheriff’s Deputy Bob Parcell of Seeley Lake and Undersheriff Josh Clark, agree: This year’s race for Missoula County sheriff, which will be decided in the June 3 Democratic primary, is the most contentious anyone can remember. (No Republican filed for the office.)

Despite the apparent physical and organizational turmoil, it’s a department McDermott is determined to lead.

“Undoubtedly this will be a challenge for anyone who becomes sheriff, because the department is divided,” McDermott said. “I am committed to bringing the department back together, and I will do so by leading by example and requiring my staff to do the same.”

He’s confident that as a leader he can gently mend the rift that has paralyzed the office for the past several months. He said by treating employees with fairness and respect, he’s the leader the department needs to heal.

He’s part of the solution, he said.

“One of my opponents has helped cause the problems and hasn’t stopped them,” McDermott said. “My other opponent – a great deputy – lives and works about 100 miles away from Missoula. He doesn’t have the daily interactions or contact with the majority of the employees at the sheriff’s office or the jail, and it’s those interactions and relationships that are going to be the integral part in solving those problems.”

But critics of McDermott paint another picture of the detective, contending he may not have the backbone to stand up to Missoula’s Democratic Party “machine.” McDermott has garnered support from many Missoula Democratic state legislators, as well as Missoula County commissioners Michele Landquist and Jean Curtiss. Mayor John Engen has also endorsed McDermott.

In a letter to the editor published in the Missoulian, Clark accused McDermott of blind loyalty to Missoula’s Democratic Party leadership, saying the city’s “politically elite cronies” have groomed McDermott to be their pawn.

Sheriff Carl Ibsen, who is supporting Clark’s campaign, is also critical of McDermott and his alliance with Democrats. Though he refused to speak to the Missoulian regarding his opinions, Ibsen’s recent letter to the editor highlighted his disapproval of McDermott’s ties to Missoula Democrats.

“The Office of Sheriff transcends politics,” he wrote. “Law enforcement is neither Democrat nor Republican because right and wrong exist on both sides.”

“The Office of Sheriff does not lend itself well to partisanship or favoritism,” he added.

***

Dressed in a white pressed shirt and a tie, McDermott emphasized on a recent afternoon that it’s the right time in his career and for his family to hold public office.

“I love Missoula,” he said. “I love the people. I am involved in the community and I have been involved in the community prior to my candidacy.

“I see a need for positive change.”

With collaboration and teamwork, McDermott believes the sheriff’s department can do a better job protecting the public. He identified several key issues that face the department, including sexual assault and the incarceration of people with mental health problems.

“Right now there is a prevalence of violence against females in our community and a need to protect victims of sexual assault,” he said. “I am committed to speaking out and preventing violence against women and protecting victims of sexual assault.”

Another key issue is the increasing incarceration of people with mental health or addiction issues. Many times, law enforcement is forced to deal with people who clearly have health issues because other agencies – mental health facilities, for example – do not have the financial resources to accommodate those people.

“As sheriff, I want to work with the judges and county and city attorneys to make sure that the people who are incarcerated need to be there,” he said. “Right now, there is a huge problem with people that have mental illness that are finding themselves locked up in jail. And that’s something that I am definitely going to work on.”

McDermott, if elected, would also consider raising county taxes to add additional deputies, but he counters that idea with the fact that he would work with other law enforcement agencies to find alternate ways to fund the positions.

***

An Anaconda native, McDermott has an 18-year career in law enforcement, including several years spent with the Anaconda Police Department and the Missoula Police Department. His day at the sheriff’s office, where he has spent the past 10 years of his career, begins with an 8 a.m. detectives’ meeting.

For the most part, he’s behind the desk overseeing cases or solving his own cases, but occasionally he’s sent to the scene of a significant and unforgettable crime, like the shooting that left Adam Gallegos permanently injured.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 7, 2012, Christopher Lee Burch entered an East Missoula convenience store and demanded money from Gallegos, who was stocking a cooler. When Gallegos refused and turned his back on Burch, the intruder shot him between the shoulders.

McDermott arrived on scene at 3:45 a.m., and during the course of the investigation he became very familiar with the family.

“Personally, I support him because I know he does a good job,” Gallegos said recently at a church in East Missoula.

Aside from his physical injuries, Gallegos suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has struggled to regain the confidence to leave his home. He said McDermott was present during his exhaustive recovery.

Burch was sentenced to 70 years in the Montana State Prison, while his accomplice Preston Hanna was sentenced to 30 years with 10 suspended.

Justice was served, but it was the relationship he built with the Gallegos family that highlights the qualities that would make McDermott a good sheriff, Johnson explained. McDermott puts the priority on public service and truly enjoys helping people, his pick for undersheriff said. That attitude, he says, shines through in his personal and professional life.

“I don’t know how he gets a lot of work done at the office because people pick up on his kindness,” Johnson said. “He just listens and offers advice. He’s just a caring person.”

Coming Wednesday: A profile of Missoula County sheriff candidate Bob Parcell.

Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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