MISSOULA — A former Mineral County deputy sheriff misrepresented his past law enforcement experience and didn’t reveal when he was hired in 2006 that he’d been terminated from police departments in California and Ronan in the 1980s.
Jim Balenger, who was disciplined last year for tasing a restrained prisoner in the county jail, was dismissed in March because his credibility as a witness was “absolutely nil,” Sheriff Ernie Ornelas said in a letter delivered to Balenger on March 17.
Balenger is appealing his firing. He had sought to keep the letter and papers documenting previous firings repressed, but Missoula County District Court Judge Karen Townsend ordered their release on Wednesday.
One was a letter dated July 12, 1983, from the Santa Monica, Calif., personnel board to the city’s mayor and city council. It stemmed from a traffic stop in February of that year in which Balenger was found to have used excessive force, endangered himself and others, and inappropriately pointed his service revolver at Samuel Kuowei Yang and Yiwei Han Chin.
The second was a judgment two years later by the police commission in Ronan, where Balenger worked as a part-time police officer. He was suspended for 45 days, during which time funding for his position expired, for taking an underage girl drinking in Kalispell and for leaving town while on duty.
In his March 17 letter, Ornelas said it didn’t appear Balenger disclosed information about prior disciplinary actions when he applied for the Mineral County job.
Balenger said Thursday he started with the county in 2006 as a probation officer and then became a reserve deputy “or vice versa. I can’t even remember.”
Ornelas cited a sworn statement Balenger made in March 2013 to the state Human Rights Commission during an investigation into the tasing incident that Balenger had “no prior disciplinary issues of any kind, including excessive use of force complaints.”
Balenger also misrepresented his law enforcement experience to a state investigator and in justice court on a search warrant application, the sheriff said.
Balenger told Department of Criminal Investigation agent Kevin McCarvel in December 2012 he had been in law enforcement “approximately 17 years.” Ornelas said Balenger’s own records indicated it was closer to 13 years – roughly 3 1/2 years from 1977 to 1981 with the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department in California; two years from 1981 to 1983 in Santa Monica; one year in Ronan and the time since 2007 in Mineral County.
Balenger swore before Acting Justice of the Peace Doug Shakey in March, less than two weeks before he was fired, that he had “approximately 12 years” of experience before he came to Montana, Ornelas wrote.
“Based upon my review of the documentation, it appears that your law enforcement experience prior to coming to Montana was just over five years,” the sheriff said.
“I couldn’t remember all that stuff,” Balenger said. “I mean, it’s pretty hard to go back 30 years ago to get the exact dates and all that stuff. Because I have no records of that.”
Last September, Ornelas staunchly defended his decision not to fire Balenger for the jailhouse tasing incident at a “press conference” on a crowded courthouse lawn in Superior. Balenger received a five-day suspension and was required to undergo remedial training.
At the time, Ornelas said it was up to County Attorney Marcia Boris to end a stalemate caused by her refusal to prosecute cases that relied on testimony from Balenger. Boris’ stand was based on what Ornelas called “inconsistent statements” by Balenger during the criminal investigation of the tasing incident.
“The county attorney has informed me that she must make further disclosures relating to the documented misrepresentations” of Balenger’s past, Ornelas wrote in the termination letter. “This renders your credibility as a witness absolutely nil. Therefore … termination for ‘incapacity materially affecting ability to perform official duties’ is warranted.”
Balenger came under fire in California in 1983 after he issued Yang a moving citation for an unsafe lane change on the Santa Monica Freeway. According to the city personnel board report, as Balenger returned to his car, Chin told him to “slow down” from the passenger’s seat of the Toyota.
Balenger walked to the passenger side and told Chin to get out. When Chin refused, Balenger reached into the car and struggled with both men. He dragged Chin out, pinned him to the ground with his knee and pointed his pistol at Chin and then Yang, who was still in the car and voicing his protest of Balenger’s actions.
Balenger arrested Chin for assault on a peace officer and Yang for obstructing a public officer in the discharge of his duties.
The personnel board found Balenger used poor judgment when he reached into the car and again when he pointed his revolver at the two men. He was also in violation of the department policy manual which stated “an officer must at all times conduct himself in a manner which does not bring discredit to himself, the department, or the city,” the report said.
Ronan Police Chief Allen Corneliusen brought a number of charges against Balenger, his part-time officer, in July 1985. The police commission agreed to consider three of them – taking an 18-year-old girl drinking in Kalispell, leaving Ronan while on duty, and allowing the same girl to ride in a police vehicle. The latter complaint was dismissed because of unclear department policy, but the commission ruled the other two infractions were sufficient to suspend Balenger for 45 days.
That in effect ended Balenger’s time with the department, since the city council had chopped the salary of a part-time peace officer from the budget, effective two weeks into the suspension.
Balenger has yet to meet with Mineral County commissioners about his appeal.
He’s leaving the process up to Tim McKittrick of Great Falls, an attorney for Teamsters Local No. 2.
“I’m 61 years old. I’ve had three heart attacks. I’ve got five stents in my heart,” Balenger said. “I don’t need all the stress. That’s why I’ve gotten to the point I really don’t care any more.