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State investigating complaint against Libby Police officer

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Hagadone News Network | January 13, 2024 12:00 AM

State investigators are looking into a complaint against a Libby Police officer.

Kyler Nerison, communications director for the Montana Attorney General’s Office, confirmed in a Jan. 9 email to The Western News that the Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) accepted a request to investigate Sgt. Ron Buckner.

Libby Police Chief Cody Ercanbrack told The Western News that Buckner is currently on paid leave of absence pending the review of employment matters. Buckner’s leave began on Dec. 6.

Ercanbrack said he will release more information when the investigation is complete. 

"I want the public to know that I will be keeping them updated and that they can expect more information as soon as it's available. I want to be as transparent as possible," Ercanbrack said.

Katrina Bolger, a paralegal and investigator with the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, confirmed it is aware of the investigation in a Jan. 8 email.

While none of the agencies specified what the investigation is about, the DCI’s Investigation Bureau provides direct assistance in a broad range of criminal investigations, including corruption and official misconduct, among others, to municipalities and counties.

State officials said there was no timeline for when its investigation would be complete.

Buckner and his attorney, Lance Jasper, did not offer a comment or statement for this story.

Mayor Peggy Williams also declined to comment.

The city has had difficulties with the Police Department, but seemed to be headed in a favorable direction after it hired a new chief and a number of officers following the events that occurred in late 2022 and 2023.

Three police officers, Ian Smith, Chris Pape and Cody DeWitt, quit the force on Nov. 21, 2022. They were critical of former Chief Scott Kessel and were concerned with his leadership, forced overtime, not assisting with patrol responsibilities, and giving incorrect direction regarding policy and procedure.

The Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Bureau received complaints on Kessel and, after an investigation, met on Nov. 21, 2023 to discuss the former chief's case.

According to an email to The Western News from Bolger, the case status committee of the POST Council determined that Kessel engaged in unprofessional and biased conduct as well as making numerous inappropriate, sexual comments in the workplace.

An allegation of dishonesty was not sustained.

Bolger also said in the email that the committee elected to send Kessel an offer of a stipulated sanction. If he agreed to POST’s offer, his certification would be placed on a two-year stayed suspension, on probation conditions. He would also have to agree to receive sexual harassment training within six months of reappointment as a public safety officer.

Kessel offered the following statement in an email to The Western News.

"I do not agree with the POST recommendation and have responded accordingly. POST will meet to discuss the issues I have raised and issue a final decision," Kessel wrote.

Libby City Council voted unanimously on April 3, 2023 to approve a separation agreement with Kessel, ending his six-year term as chief. Kessel, who joined the force in 2016, became chief in 2017.

A fourth officer, Joshua Brabo, left the department in the spring of 2023, leaving Buckner as the agency's lone officer.

Then, on March 6, 2023, Libby City Council appointed three people, John Beebe, Steven Boyer and Karen Dinkins, to the city’s Police Commission. It had become defunct and came to light in the aftermath of the three officers' resignations.

At a Nov. 21 Libby Police Commission meeting, Beebe, then-chair, spoke about recognizing Buckner, in part, for being the lone city officer to remain on the force following the resignation of four officers and the negotiated agreement leading to Kessel's departure.

“He showed a willingness to remain while others didn’t maintain his professionalism and commitment to the city,” Beebe said. “He went above and beyond.”

Before Beebe’s recent resignation from the commission, he, Boyer and Dinkins voted to recommend that Ercanbrack consider Buckner for recognition.