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Two Brave Cops Under Attack for Exposing Militarization and Corruption in their Department

Kristin Bantle, a sixteen-year veteran police officer, received notice of her termination from the Steamboat Springs, Colorado Police Department on August 10. Five days later she had her first court appearance on a contrived charge of “attempting to influence a public official.” Those events constitute official retaliation against Bantle for publicly criticizing the SSPD’s “culture of fear and intimidation” and its “militaristic” approach to law enforcement. Her trial on a fourth-degree felony charge is scheduled to begin on December 1.

Bantle has rejected several proposed plea deals, the terms of which she believes would have prevented her from warning the community about  “a paramilitary police department” for which excessive force is standard operating procedure, and abuse of individual rights is commonplace. She outlined her concerns in a March 25 letter to the Steamboat Springs City Council. She was not the first or only former SSPD officer to go public with concerns about the department. Former Detective Dave Kleiber, who resigned in 2013, had provided an even more detailed critique of the SSPD in a March 9th open letter to city residents. 

Both whistleblowers now find themselves targeted for prosecution. The charges against Bantle, who was removed from her duties as a School Resource Officer last Spring — a few weeks after contacting the City Council — are related to omissions in a job application she filed with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office a few years ago after she had become disillusioned with the SSPD. Kleiber, who now works as a private investigator, learned in July that the County Prosecutor’s Office may prosecute him for alleged perjury during a 2013 criminal trial.

Attorney Charles Feldman, who represents Kleiber, insists that Kleiber’s whistle-blowing is why the “government [is] trying to look back through his disciplinary records and recordings and looking back through anything that they could find regarding his service as law enforcement….I represent people in the military all over the world, and it’s a classic tactic to retaliate against a whistleblower that way.”

In her March 25 letter to the Steamboat Springs City Council, then-Officer Bantle said that one organizational pillar for the SSPD under Chief Joel Rae was “contempt for outsiders.”

“The tone from the Chief is `it’s us against them’ and if you don’t agree with him on an issue then `it’s him against you,’” declared Bantle. Prior to relocating in Steamboat Springs with her husband and two daughters in 2011, Bantle had been employed for more than a decade as a deputy in Mason County, Michigan. She was unprepared for what she has described as the “militaristic” culture of the SSPD.

“One of my first trainings at the SSPD was something called Krav Maga,” a mixed martial arts fighting technique devised by the Israeli military, Bantle explained to the City Council. “I was uncomfortable with the level of force I was being encouraged to use. For example, I was advised to `make a fist to punch people in the face’ as a means of control. I have never struck someone in the face, let alone made a fist to punch people. I have never felt the need to be so aggressive. This tactic is also referred to as `strike first and strike hard.’”

Bantle had previously been trained in less aggressive methods involving “pressure point control techniques” and suggested to Chief Rae that the department should include that approach – and de-escalation tactics – in its training. Rae blithely dismissed that suggestion.

“Even after four excessive force lawsuits the department as a whole has not received de-escalation training,” Bantle lamented in her letter to the City Council. Those lawsuits, in her view, reflected the department’s reliance on “physical violence” in response to any perceived non-cooperation, a “lack of consistent supervision and mentoring,” a “lack of cameras,” and, most importantly, an institutional “`Us against them’ ethos.”

Bantle also expressed frustration regarding a “lack of transparency” and what appeared to be a deeply entrenched misogyny on the part of Chief Rae and his cronies. While some might be tempted to discount that last complaint as the assessment of an ambitious but frustrated female professional, it was made even more vehemently by former Detective Kleiber in his own March 9 “open letter” to the residents of Steamboat Springs.

Kleiber, who had been employed as a police officer for nearly 20 years, criticized Chief Rae for infusing “his values of sexism, intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy, incompetence and bullying [into] the Police Department.” By “sexism” Kleiber was not referring to trivial slights or the use of verbal stereotypes that might “trigger” hyper-sensitive campus activists, but aggressive contempt for female employees and members of the public at large.

By Kleiber’s account, Rae and his Deputy Chief, Bob Devalle, would use the bizarre epithet “mumboza” as “a derogatory term for females,” and would incessantly evaluate women – especially job applicants — solely on the basis of their sexual desirability. On several occasions, according to Kleiber, Deputy Chief Devalle made denigrating remarks about a female Animal Control and Code Enforcement Officer, “such as, `Poor Girl, God knocked the tits right off her.’” When referring to another woman who worked as director of a victims’ advocacy service, Kleiber reported, Devalle gave theatrical expression to his disbelief that she was involved in a romantic relationship: “I can’t believe anyone would f**k her.”

The “Badge Bros” culture created by Rae and Devalle didn’t direct such derision solely at females.

“A brand new officer’s first experience at the Steamboat Springs Police Department is to be told at a department meeting to `stand up and tell us something about yourself,’” related Kleiber. “Upon starting to speak, the officer is then shouted down by a chorus led by Joel Rae, of `Shut the f**k up, and sit down.’… And thus, the atmosphere is set.”

Chief Rae constantly reminded his officers that they were “at-will” employees who were expected to generate revenue for his department. This was made apparent when he added a “surcharge” to every citation.

“The money from these tickers is then funneled directly back into the Police Department yearly budget,” Kleiber disclosed. “Patrol Officers are given an unofficial quota on the number of tickets they must write to help fill the Police Department’s coffers. Each Officer is then provided an annual performance evaluation, with one area of evaluation being whether they wrote enough tickets or not.”

The ever-escalating police shakedown produced not only a blizzard of spurious citations, but an avalanche of pretext charges, as well: Within two years of Rae’s appointment as chief, 34 local residents were arrested for “obstructing police.”

“This is a criminal charge that is almost never utilized and is commonly referred to as `contempt of cop,’” Kleiber points out.

Another of Rae’s innovative ways to turn harmless people into “criminal offenders” was to require each officer to “complete a `field interview card’ in its entirety upon any contact with any person for any reason,” Kleiber continued. “The information that Joel Rae was requiring his officers to collect went well beyond what they law allowed… [including] home addresses, sex, height, weight, hair color, eye color, race, facial hair, glasses, home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, places of employment, `personal oddities,’ and vehicle description including vehicle ID number and license plates.”

This illegal and unconstitutional policy, predictably, led to routine abuses by patrol officers, and at least one lawsuit.

Steamboat Springs resident Chelsea Blanchette was accosted by a police officer while she was working out at a 24-hour fitness club. Without probable cause or grounds for reasonable suspicion, the officer demanded that Blanchette provide him with the information to complete an “interview card.” When the woman refused to submit to a “field interview” – as she had every right to – the officer assaulted her, then arrested her on a charge of “resisting arrest.” She was briefly detained, then released without an apology.

Blanchette was one of four victims of abuse at the hands of SSPD officers who filed suits against the department within two years of Chief Rae’s installation. Almost exactly one year prior to Blanchette’s experience, John Ferrugia filed a lawsuit after being assaulted and arrested without cause at the same 24-hour health club. David Weaver, the plaintiff in a third suit, was beaten after having his hands cuffed behind his back. He suffered kidney damage as a result of Krav Maga-style “knee strikes.” Another SSPD officer beat Nick Holdridge with a flashlight while the victim’s hands were cuffed behind his back.

“These suits are a clear message that people’s constitutional rights are being violated by the Steamboat Springs Police Department under the leadership of Joel Rae,” observed Kleiber. Significantly, Rae – a Marine Corps veteran who, per Kleiber’s account, sports an incongruous SS tattoo, actually compelled his officers to swear an adulterated oath of office and required them to defy Colorado’s marijuana laws.

“Immediately after Amendment 64 was passed, Joel called a Department meeting,” Kleiber narrated in his letter. “He entered the meeting and declared that every officer’s previous oath of office was now invalid. He then ordered everyone to stand and had a judge administer a new oath of office declaring obedience to `Federal Law’ with the clear message of usurping the will of the Colorado voters and denying individuals their rights as afforded under the State Constitution.”

Chief Rae and Deputy Chief Devalle were placed on “administrative leave” in March, following Kleiber’s disclosures. On July 17, Rae resigned. However, his departure hasn’t ended the campaign of retaliation against the conscientious ex-officers who spoke out against his abusive reign – and Kristin Bantle is bearing the brunt of that attack.

“The basis of the charge is that there was an inconsistency between my statements in my application to the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, and the results of my polygraph test, regarding prior drug use,” Bantle told The Free Thought Project. “If I had been hired by the Sheriff’s Office, and it was discovered that I had been deliberately deceptive, I would have been liable for prosecution. But since they chose not to hire me, that provision doesn’t apply. The timing of the charge, which was filed about two years after I applied, makes it pretty clear that this is all contrived for the purpose of retaliation.”

The same is true, Bantle plausibly contends, regarding her dismissal as a School Resource Officer “three days before graduation,” and her termination last August.

“A complaint had been received about some rough language I used in teaching a self-defense and anti-bullying course,” Bantle recalls. “I did say what was reported, because saying things such as `Get the f**k off me!’ is a legitimate technique in dealing with an assailant.”

There were also concerns about stories Bantle had shared regarding unusual traffic stops and drug raids. For example, she related a stop in which she found a man pleasuring himself with a sex toy, the size and composition of which she described in detail. She shared those gamey anecdotes after students had barraged her with questions about the “weirdest” experiences she had as a patrol officer.

Detective Josh Carrell, a former School Resource Officer with the SSPD, investigated the complaints against Bantle. His report clearly demonstrates that Bantle was well-liked and respected by students or faculty alike, who considered her to be helpful and professional. There were two conspicuous exceptions, both of whom were students whose fathers were employed in local law enforcement. One of them took offense when Bantle said that some police officers inevitably “become corrupted.”

Last June, prior to Bantle’s termination, Steamboat Today reported that “Since Bantle was removed from her [SRO] position, there has been a rally of support for Bantle from teachers, parents, and students.” That support for Bantle has continued as her trial approaches. Buntle’s defense attorney Kris Hammond has represented several clients who have been charged with “attempting to influence a public official” by the Routt County Prosecutor’s Office, which uses that statute as another way to punish people for “contempt of cop.”

Hammond refers to one case in which a client was hit with that charge after supposedly threatening a police officer after being arrested. The prosecutor’s office insisted that this statement wasn’t merely an ill-considered expression of frustration, but an attempt by the detainee to compel the officer to let him go – and thus an illegal effort to “influence” the officer.

On the basis of her previous experience, Hammond is optimistic about Bantle’s chances of victory in court: “I don’t know of one case where this charge has made it past halftime at a trial.”

The obvious intent behind the specious charge isn’t to deal with an actual offense, but to put a whistleblower through the expense and anguish of an entirely unwarranted trial – thereby deterring other officers from developing a conscience.