Montana Officer Alleges Workplace Assault

A lawsuit by a Missoula, Mont., police detective alleges a male colleague assaulted her in her workplace cubicle.

The suit by Detective Jamie Merifield says that on July 31, 2007, Detective Richard Chrestenson “approached her, separated her legs, placed his knee between her thighs and leaned into her, trapping her in her chair and preventing her from escaping while verbally berating her.”

Chrestenson and the city, defendants in the District Court suit filed in March, have filed separate responses denying allegations.

In his response, Chrestenson says he entered Merifield’s office cubicle, sat in a chair and “to maintain some privacy, pulled his chair closer to (Merifield) who was also seated. He admits that his knee ended up between her knees, and that he leaned forward to speak with her.”

In its response, the city denies wrongdoing and says that if there was wrongful conduct that forms the basis for legal action, it was beyond the scope of Chrestenson’s employment. The city acknowledges, in the response, that Chrestenson entered Merifield’s cubicle where she was seated, put his hands on her knees and asked why she was “hating on him.”

Merifield alleges violation of her rights and seeks up to $1 million in damages, including compensation for pain, medical and psychological care, impaired ability to enjoy life and impairment of earning capacity.

Additional court filings on her behalf contend that Missoula police officials condoned a male-dominated atmosphere in the workplace and allowed preferential treatment of male officers. Merifield says it became known that Chrestenson assaulted her, but officials took no disciplinary action. Chrestenson was allowed to file a hostile-work-environment claim against her, she says.

Merifield, who has worked in the police department for 13 years and specializes in domestic violence investigations, is one of 15 women who are sworn officers on a force of 101.

Following the allegation that she was assaulted, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Bender commissioned attorney Eleanor Laws to review the work environment in the police department. Merifield says Laws recommended changes, but it appears none were implemented.

City officials refused to give Merifield a copy of the Laws report, but District Judge John Larson ordered the content be disclosed to Merifield and her attorney.

The Missoulian sought the report through a Freedom of Information Act request, which the city recently denied on grounds the report is not a public record. Larson ordered the report not be made public until concerns about the privacy of people named in it are addressed.