On the surface, things look pretty normal up in Burnett County, Wis., less than two hours northeast of the Twin Cities: notices for a 5K fundraiser, the annual ice fishing contest and a birding seminar at the wildlife center.
But you wouldn’t know it from the sound of Burnett County Sheriff Dean Roland’s weary voice. He has been overseeing the investigation of an unprecedented scandal in the county, where many Minnesotans live and commute, or have cabins.
There have been allegations of domestic abuse by one of the sheriff’s deputies and subsequent coverup by his colleagues. Two deputies and a dispatcher have been fired. Another dispatcher resigned. Others have been disciplined for cooperating in attempts to hide the abuse from superiors.
“And everybody thinks it’s my fault because I went after these people and held them accountable,” Roland said. “[People say] I’m crazy, I’m insane and these were the best officers ever. Well, most people don’t know the facts.”
Those “facts” are contained in a 400-page document obtained under Wisconsin’s data practices act. Hearing officer Jeffrey Kohler summarized the scandal with this opinion: “A frightful chaos was visited upon the Burnett County Sheriff’s Department because some people thought they were smarter than everybody else.”
According to the report, a lot of people knew about problems in the home of deputy Chris Culvey. But none of them followed department policy by telling Roland.
Culvey and his girlfriend had such a volatile relationship that other officers frequently brought him to their homes overnight to keep him from fighting with her, the report said.
Culvey’s girlfriend called 911 to report domestic abuse twice in 2011, saying that Culvey had verbally abused her, threw something at her and backed her into a corner. When the woman threatened to call police, Culvey allegedly said: “I am the police. Go ahead, nothing will happen.”
And nothing did happen, Roland said.
Sgt. Thad Osborne and Deputy Travis Thiex responded to one of the 911 calls. According to taped interviews, the officers failed to file a report on the incident, saying it was simply an argument.
Osborne allegedly warned Culvey’s girlfriend that continuing to call 911 could get him fired, and she would lose her health insurance, the report says. Osborne told her instead to call his personal phone the next time Culvey got abusive.
The calls were originally logged by dispatchers as “domestic” but later changed to “disturbance.” Culvey’s name never appeared on the reports, which contained no narrative.
“They admitted they knew our policies, they admitted they knew what to do with officer-involved domestics, and they just ignored it,” said Roland, who fired them both.
Andrew Schauer, attorney for the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, however, said Roland overreacted.
“The actions of Osborne and Thiex never rose to the level of termination,” Schauer said. “If I lived in the area, I would want them on the beat. We hope to get their jobs back.”
But Carol Arthur, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Project, said it’s especially important for potential officer abuse to be handled vigorously, and always by an outside agency.
“If she is in fear of bodily harm, it is domestic,” Arthur said. “There needs to be an arrest. If they cared about him, they needed to get him intervention.”
The behavior was discovered when the Polk County sheriff contacted Roland and told him they were investigating Culvey on an unrelated criminal complaint. That case remains under investigation.
The criminal investigation led them back to Culvey’s girlfriend, and response to her 911 calls.
Other officers later acknowledged they knew the actions were wrong, and they privately worried Culvey was a ticking “bomb,” they said in interviews.
“I think this woman is a credible witness,” Roland said. “She is a poster child for a domestic abuse victim. She was emotionally and verbally destroyed.”
Nine employees have been disciplined. Osborne and Thiex are appealing their dismissals so are officially on administrative leave. Culvey is on paid leave.
Yet, “some people around here think if I’d just ignored this we’d still be one big, happy, corrupt dysfunctional family,” said Roland.