Ousted Police Chief Sues Columbia Falls

Dave Perry alleges city wrongfully terminated him after inmate escaped

By Justin Franz

Columbia Falls’ former police chief who was fired earlier this year after an inmate escaped from his custody is suing the city for wrongful termination.

In a lawsuit filed in Flathead County District Court this month, Dave Perry accuses City Manager Susan Nicosia of “undermining” the chief’s leadership and initiating an investigation to oust him.

Perry was terminated on July 1 after the city conducted an investigation into a May incident where a man accused of assaulting his girlfriend walked out of the Columbia Falls Police Department. The escape, which occurred under Perry’s watch, led to an hour-long manhunt. While city officials have said Perry’s termination stems from the May escape and his response to it, the former chief stated the city manager wanted him out.

“During her time supervising Perry, Nicosia was conflict avoidant with Perry personally, while she undermined Perry’s authority behind his back,” the lawsuit states.

According to court documents, Perry received high marks on his most recent job evaluation in 2012.

According to the lawsuit, Christopher Calf Looking was arrested on May 12 for partner or family member assault. Looking was kept in an unsecured shower stall at the police station while awaiting a bond hearing because the regular holding cell was closed due to electrical issues. Early that afternoon, Perry took over the inmate watch for the arresting officer. Soon after, Looking started to yell about a brown recluse spider in the nearby toilet. The inmate told the chief that he could not kill the spider because of his religious beliefs.

Perry directed Looking to stand outside of the shower stall while he looked for the spider. Perry did not find a spider and when he looked back up, Looking was nowhere to be seen, according to the lawsuit.

Perry was unable to notify the alleged victim that Looking had escaped because he could not find the arresting officer’s paperwork with the proper contact information. Meanwhile, police received a report that Looking returned to the home where he had been arrested earlier in the day, but by the time they arrived the man was already gone. Looking was later apprehended near the Flathead River with the help of Two Bear Air, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Border Patrol and Montana Highway Patrol.

Formal charges were never filed against Looking.

Following the escape, some locals were critical of Perry for not informing nearby schools and community members of the ongoing manhunt. But Perry said authorities knew where the man was and there was no need to inform the public because he did not pose a threat.

Nicosia launched a formal investigation into the escape and found that Perry should be terminated for a “lack of due diligence and sense of public duty.” But Perry’s attorney, Doug Scotti, argues that the investigation was biased from the beginning.

“Nicosia’s investigation into Looking’s escape from custody was instigated to target Perry for termination,” Scotti wrote in court documents. “Before Nicosia terminated Perry she had expressed to employees of Columbia Falls, including to police officers under the command of Perry, that she wanted to get ride of Perry as Police Chief.”

On June 30, Nicosia met with Perry and asked him to resign because he had committed a “terminable offense.” Perry refused to resign, so Nicosia fired him.

After terminating Perry, Nicosia told the Beacon that the former police chief would be able to appeal the decision.

Perry’s lawsuit asks that a jury decide if he was wrongfully terminated, and he is requesting lost wages and benefits for up to four years.

Perry began working at the police department in 1978 as a reserve officer.

Sgt. Sean Murphy became acting chief as the city searches for a new police leader. Earlier this month, Whitefish and Columbia Falls agreed to have Whitefish Assistant Police Chief Mike Ferda help the department eight hours a week reviewing cases and performing other administrative duties.

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