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“I think people really need to understand:” Officers pen letter to citizens after resigning from department

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The Western News, Libby, Mont.


Dec. 30—Two of the three former Libby police officers who resigned on the same day last month spoke with the Western News recently to shed more light on their motivations for leaving the department.

Ian Smith, Cody DeWitt and Chris Pape gave their resignations to the city on Nov. 21. Soon after, the city placed Chief Scott Kessel on paid leave while it investigated claims by the officers of possible misconduct and financial decisions that cost the city money.

But on Dec. 20, a news release from Mayor Peggy Williams said Kessel would return to duties on Dec. 27. Williams said in the release, “The investigation did not indicate that there were any violations of laws or policies to support termination of the chief of police.”

That decision, in addition to rumors about why the officers resigned, led to the men to write a letter to the people of Libby that was published in the Western News on Dec. 27.

“I think people really need to understand why we made the decisions we did,” Smith said.

The officer’s complaints date back to at least February 2020.

Smith considers an incident on Nov. 19 the final breaking point for the officers. He elaborated on it and felt Kessel had a lack of concern for the well being of the officers.

“A man had shot a deer in city limits and I and Josh (Brabo) responded,” Smith said. “I was Josh’s training officer at the time. The man who lived at the residence had a lengthy history with law enforcement and something spooked me and I called for backup. We were investigating the possible aspect of a criminal endangerment charge due to the fact there were homes surrounding the location.”

Smith said the incident occurred near the corner of Dakota and Utah avenues.

“When we checked the deer, we could see the bullet had exited the body, but we never found the bullet,” Smith said. “When we arrived, the man went back inside the house and there was a woman with him. I felt there was a barricading situation. We tried to contact the woman with no success. Our initial decision was to go into the home, but when we spoke to Sgt. Pape, he said, ‘No, don’t go in.'”

Smith said the next day Kessel berated him for speaking to other officers.

“I told him, ‘you weren’t there.’ He wanted us to go get him and I told him I wouldn’t and that I didn’t think it was a good idea,” Smith said.

Smith told Brabo that they could pick up the man later.

“I think I made a mistake, but no one got killed,” Smith said. “I considered the chief’s order unlawful. I didn’t want this to turn into a suicide.”

Smith, who served his country in the U.S. Army, said he wasn’t afraid of conflict, but he was concerned for area residents and his partner.

“We didn’t want to risk others being injured and I was concerned because Josh and his wife had just had a baby,” Smith said. “Him getting hurt or ending up dead was something I didn’t want to live with. I’m a combat veteran and I’ve been to Iraq, so fear wasn’t part of the equation, but the lack of concern for our well-being was the last straw.”

DeWitt, who has since taken a job with the county as a detention officer, said burnout was a major issue for the officers. DeWitt joined the force at the end of 2017.

“I’ve told people that we did try to fix this,” DeWitt said. “He (Kessel) knew there was burnout. I told him, ‘You need to be a leader and a boss, help us. There’s only one of us on a shift.'”

DeWitt explained the challenges of patrolling, making arrests and also performing janitorial duties, managing records, filing, with no help.

” Scott (Kessel), he’d help at times, but only when it was convenient for him. There were one-on-one meetings, but those were not as good. He didn’t listen to our concerns. In February 2020, the county sheriff’s office offered us support staff free of charge, but the chief refused it.”

Smith spoke at length about working what he termed excessive overtime.

“Scott denied us time off, which he could, but it was getting to the point where we would lose the days. According to state law, the city couldn’t just write us a check for paid time off we didn’t get, we’d just lose it. “

Smith also felt that Kessel took time off randomly and that it appeared he may not have had the time to take.

Smith explained that a typical week may include him working on Monday and Tuesday, having Wednesday and Thursday off and working Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“In June, Cody had to travel to Fort Dix ( New Jersey) for Army National Guard responsibilities and Scott didn’t pick up the slack,” Smith said. “We work 12-hour shifts and when someone is gone, I’d end up working seven days a week and going from day to night shifts is difficult. If Scott had picked up some of the day shifts, we wouldn’t have had to work so much overtime.”

Smith said that because of what he considered inappropriate and possibly illegal billing of hours, forced overtime, it had cost the city to lose about $30,000.

Smith took issue with Kessel not utilizing a reserve officer policy he asked him to write more than 2 1/2 years ago. Smith said he spent more than 20 hours of his personal time preparing it. But he said Kessel determined reserve officers weren’t needed.

“A volunteer reserve program could have provided additional help with minimal cost to the city,” Smith said.

Smith also criticized Kessel’s approach to the job.

“Scott was taking a 1980s approach to policing in 2020,” Smith said.

In a Dec. 28 email from Timothy Allred, the Bureau Chief of the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Bureau, POST had not received a complaint regarding the officers you mentioned below.

“I have been in contact with Mayor Peggy Williams, and she said they were conducting an investigation,” Allred wrote in the email. “I provided Mayor Williams with 23.1.203 Code of Ethics and 23.13.702 Grounds for Denial, Sanction, Suspension, or Revocation of Post Certification.

“Mayor Williams confirmed if violations were found during their investigation they would provide that information to POST. At this time, nothing has been sent to POST.”

Williams sent the following e-mail in response to questions regarding the letter sent by officers.

“The matter pertaining to Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel remains an employee matter. No City of Libby Police Department employee, past or current has signed a waiver allowing the City to release or discuss information related to the matter, therefore at this time, we cannot comment on the recent letter written by the three resigning officers.”

The city is expected to take up the issue of a contract between it and the county to pay for law enforcement services at the next meeting, set for Tuesday, Jan. 3.


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