Monday, September 25, 2023

An open letter to the people of Libby

| December 27, 2022 7:00 AM

On Nov. 4 of this year, Libby Police Officers Chris Pape, Cody DeWitt and Ian Smith had a closed-door meeting with Mayor Peggy Williams and City Administrator Samuel Sikes.

There was a lengthy discussion requesting a resolution regarding issues with Police Chief Scott Kessel. There was no formal grievance filed with the city for two reasons: 1.) We were not aware this was an option, and it was not brought up until we were in the act of quitting; and 2.) When it was brought up as the officers were leaving, it was decided the reprisals from Chief Kessel would be so severe, it was better to just quit and not suffer through what was to come.

In truth, each has devoted their lives to their careers and wanted to continue in law enforcement. None of us were faced with the decision to quit or be prosecuted.

This came after a department discussion on August 24 of this year, in which Officers Pape, DeWitt and Smith expressed their concerns to the Chief regarding his leadership.

In spite of this, and many other attempts to create more effective communication and a functional work environment, the problem grew worse and eventually these officers lost faith and confidence in leadership.

Without disclosing protected personnel information, we can explain some of the details of the November 4 meeting here.

The issues addressed in the meeting included concerns about inappropriate and possibly illegal billing of hours, use of time off and forced overtime for subordinates, and lost vacation and holiday days. Each of the officers who left were approximately 140 hours over their max vacation time causing the city to lose approximately $30,000.

Additionally, rather than a working Chief, which is necessary for the smooth functioning of a small-town department, we had a chief who rarely left his office and did not monitor radio traffic. This created logistical complications and dangerous scenarios for officers in need of cover units. Coverage would ultimately be provided by sheriff’s deputies.

On the rare occasions the Chief provided cover, he would demean officers, micromanage and sometimes give completely incorrect direction regarding policy and procedure.

Just one example of this was a video made public via Facebook in an incident with a local woman. Officers Chris Pape, Cody DeWitt and Ian Smith disagreed with how this situation was handled and was a big factor in our decision to leave the department.

On more than one occasion, the chief ordered officers to unlawfully charge people with crimes, or issue charges not appropriate for the violation in question; for example a felony charge in a situation that warranted a misdemeanor.

As officers sworn to uphold the law, this was not something we could tolerate. When these types of problems were brought to the chief’s attention, we were told to ignore them. At one point, we were told by the chief that the city council wanted to see more weed ordinance violations. When an officer found such a violation on city property, he proceeded to write a ticket to City Hall. When the chief found out about this, he ordered the ticket be voided. The chief was told this would be a corrupt act. The chief continued to insist the violation needed to disappear.

In a bid to maintain fairness and integrity, the officer negotiated so that no one received city ordinance violations at all this year. The chief would also like to tell us all “you are replaceable.”

In February of 2020, the police department was offered desperately needed support staff from LCSO, free of charge. The chief refused. Currently, officers are expected to handle all their own cases, including felonies. Felonies require a massive amount of manpower and time, from the investigation, arrest and affidavits; to subsequent evidence processing, interviews, meetings with attorneys and state officials; plus reports, follow-up and miscellaneous paperwork, follow-up; and finally court appearances and testimony.

When we were additionally tasked with new calls for service (as many as 15 a day), it did not take long for us to be completely bogged down in paperwork, affecting our abilities to provide outstanding service to the residents of our city. This would have been easily remedied with the additional administrative support offered by the county.

The police department currently has a 3-year backlog of evidence. Because his direction is required for all evidence processing and purging, the chief’s input is mandatory. Unfortunately, when asked, the chief continually puts off this vital task.

In May of 2021, the chief failed to procure a $70,000 grant. The paperwork was complete and only needed his review. Because he neglected this task, the city had to pay full price for new radios.

On more than one occasion, the chief shared sensitive information about internal investigations with people who have no bearing on the case, nor a need to know.

Over two and a half years ago, the chief tasked Officer Smith with writing a reserve officer policy. Smith spent over 20 hours of his personal time compiling the handbook. It was delivered to the chief, but never utilized. The chief ultimately said a reserve program was not necessary.

On the contrary, a volunteer reserve program could have resolved many issues over the last year with minimal cost to the city.

In October of this year, Mr. Sikes brought overtime issues to the chief’s attention. This caused the chief to reorganize the schedule in such a way that it causes officers to earn regular time although they are working overtime shifts, losing both time off and money on their paychecks.

For example, he made an officer work on a day off and instead of properly compensating him, added back a sick day the officer had taken earlier in the week.

During the meeting officers had on November 4, it appeared Mayor Peggy Williams was genuinely shocked. City Administrator Sam Sikes told us he was listening and would do his best.

We were told an investigation would be started. Again, nothing changed, and things continued to get worse. It is our belief we were not taken seriously.

Shortly after the November 4 meeting, a situation developed in city limits involving discharge of a firearm. The officer who responded was supervising a new recruit. After contact was made with the offending party, the offending party retreated into his home and began the process of barricading himself.

Rather than reporting to the scene, the chief instructed the new officer to figure out the problem for himself. The supervising city officer called sheriff’s deputies to provide cover. After a short time, it was determined that rather than escalating the situation into a potentially deadly standoff, the perpetrator could be apprehended at a later time. He posed no immediate threat to the public.

The next day the chief told the new recruit and the field training officer to return to the house and arrest the man in question. The veteran officer thought this would be a suicide mission and could not in good conscious expose the recruit under his supervision to that level of danger. He submitted his resignation that day, followed by two other officers.

In our opinion, the fact that a corrupt and morally ambiguous chief is being reinstated on the premise that there was no wrongdoing, or worse, just to save the city a little money, is unconscionable. Our plans were to remain silent and professional, but based on the City Council’s decision to reinstate the chief, it has become necessary to make the public aware. We understand some believe our exit was “surrounded in secrecy.”

This was not the case, and we expected the situation to be resolved without our causing problems for the public or ourselves.

Thank you for your time.

Ian Smith

Cody DeWitt

Chris Pape