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MISSOULA — Carl Ibsen may have won the race for Missoula County sheriff, but he came away scarred - literally.

A couple of long scratches stood out against Ibsen's bald dome after Tuesday's election, the result of a close encounter with a campaign sign.

"I clipped all the wire ties and thought one was still holding it up," Ibsen said. "It wasn't."

It's probably not the only unexpected thing that's going to land on Ibsen in his new capacity.

In January, he'll take over the department just as most of the top echelon hits retirement. A rift between the sheriff's department and Missoula County Search and Rescue cracked even wider recently. And Ibsen's very ascendance brings reminders of a time just three years ago when he stepped down from a senior position in the midst of internal strife roiling the sheriff's office.

So his new job presents, as they say, challenges.

Ibsen would say it differently.

It is, he said, "a pretty neat opportunity."

Missoula County voters chose Ibsen, who ran as an Independent against Democratic challenger Brad Giffin - like Ibsen, a longtime department insider - and Republican Nick Lisi, who retired to Huson after nearly 25 years on the Los Angeles police force.

Ibsen polled nearly 43 percent of the vote, while Giffin had 38 percent; Lisi came in a distant third with about 19 percent.

Ibsen will replace Sheriff Mike McMeekin, who's retiring three years after 45 of his 50 officers released a statement describing his behavior as irrational and detrimental to the department. The resulting turmoil saw the resignation of Mike Dominick as undersheriff, and Ibsen's own resignation as patrol captain in solidarity, although both men continued to work for the department.

Ibsen said last week he plans to put Dominick back in the undersheriff's job as soon as he takes over - as long as Dominick wants the job.

If not, he said, the job of undersheriff would be the only one he'd look outside the department to fill.

It doesn't seem likely that will happen. Dominick was among the small group of people who awaited election returns with Ibsen. "I have a ton of respect for him," he said. "He's very studied in his positions."

As for all of the other jobs left open by the pending wave of retirements, Ibsen said that's easy.

"There are a ton of really good guys" within the department. "I'll be looking for people that will advise me well, people that to a degree agree with my philosophies ... but if they think I am wrong, aren't a bit shy about telling me," he said.

"I don't particularly really want a bunch of yes-men. On the other hand, I don't want someone who's going to fight me."

 

Ibsen might want to stick to the ranks for promotions, but he'll have to look outside to fulfill his oft-stated goal of bringing more women into the department.

Undersheriff Susan Hintz is among those leaving at the end of the year, at which point every one of the department's cops will be male.

That means the department is going to have to come to terms with a hard fact, Ibsen said.

"We're going to explain why it is we're no good at keeping women on the department," he said. "We hire 'em, we train 'em, we get 'em on the road for a while - and then we lose 'em."

Both the Missoula Police Department and Montana Highway Patrol have women in their ranks, he said, adding that he'll talk to women who've left the sheriff's department to get a sense of some of the issues.

Another sore point he'll need to probe concerns the department's relations with Missoula County Search and Rescue, members of whom recently found the locks changed when they went to check equipment that was in storage.

Search and Rescue is an all-volunteer group activated at the sheriff's request. At this point, said Search and Rescue head Chris Froines, that relationship "is in flux."

McMeekin has asked the group to sign a memorandum of understanding that sets clear lines of authority, Froines said, adding that terms of the memo - the first of its kind in 50 years - are still being negotiated. In the meantime, Froines has already had a brief conversation with Ibsen about the situation.

"I think things will not only go back to the way they were" when Ibsen takes over, "but that they will actually get better; that we'll get more help from the sheriff's department," Froines said Friday.

 

Ibsen said he knew "dang little" about the wrangling with Search and Rescue. One thing he's clear about, however, is his philosophy of policing.

"I don't see the cops as an occupying force," he said. "We're enforcing the law on our friends, our neighbors and our families, and we need to treat [people who run afoul of it] that way."

That attitude is what drew Missoula Police Detective Jamie Merifield into law enforcement. She got to know Ibsen when she was still a teenager and he was on the city force, where he spent 21 years before going to the sheriff's office in 1993.

"I have never met a more morally upstanding person," she said. "He is a guy who will do the right thing."

Ibsen said that involves handling all encounters "as pleasantly and nonconfrontationally as possible, unless" - his voice took on the sternness resulting from all those years of experience - "you force us into being unfriendly." After all, he said, "we're human, too."

Both to underscore that approach, along with an eye toward a tight budget, Ibsen said he'll seek ways to coordinate services with city agencies and nonprofits. Services to victims will be an especially high priority, he said, and domestic violence victims will be at the top of the list.

He wants to see a detective specifically assigned to those cases, with the training that will give him or her expertise in the situation, and he wants that detective's work closely coordinated with the county attorney's office. His late wife, Judy Wang, a longtime advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, was instrumental in his decision to seek the sheriff's job, he said, the idea being that "the only way to be sure you can implement what you want to do is to be the top person. It's a way of finding out if my ideas are any good."

Wang will not get to see her husband sworn in to the job they both wanted him to have. She was killed in September 2009 by a driver near Anaconda who had consumed beer and marijuana before getting into his vehicle. Ibsen wears her wedding ring on his left pinkie and speaks as though she's by his side.

"We'd been planning on doing it for a number of years," he said of the sheriff's race, "so we did it."

 

Ibsen planned to spend a few days after the election playing with his pug, Oscar, and visiting his sons at Fort Lewis and Fort Harrison. Then he thought he might do a little scuba diving. Not in some tropical paradise, but in the cold, deep and exceedingly dark waters off Flathead Lake.

What's to see down there?

"Rocks and water and mud and fish and plants. Little bits of everything. You've just gotta be close," he said.

Diving is the perfect antidote to stress and distractions, said Ibsen.

"You've got to clear your mind of everything else," he said. "Every step of the way, it's real critical that you do it right."

Which, come to think of it, sounds like exactly the right preparation for his new job.

 

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