Slapdown in Steamboat Springs: The Blue Tribe Targets Two Whistleblowers

Under the reign former Chief Joel Rae, the Steamboat Springs, Colorado Police Department viewed the local citizenry as revenue-producing livestock, and officers were encouraged to “strike first and strike hard” whenever their targets displayed anything other than utter docility.

Not surprisingly, this resulted in a blizzard of “excessive force” complaints and several civil rights lawsuits. More remarkable was the emergence of two whistleblowers whose public testimony led to the removal of Chief Rae — but who now are being targeted for retaliation.

Last March, former Detective Dave Kleiber, who resigned from the SSPD in 2013,  published open letter to residents of Steamboat Springs accusing Rae of cultivating contemptuous hostility toward the public and abetting aggressive disregard for individual rights. Shortly after Kleiber went public, Office Kristin Bantle confirmed the substance of his complaints in a letter to the Steamboat Springs City Council criticizing the SSPD’s “culture of fear and intimidation” and its “militaristic” approach to law enforcement.

Within weeks Bantle was placed on “administrative leave.” She was also notified that a criminal investigation had been opened into alleged misrepresentations on a job application she had made to another law enforcement agency. On August 10 she was terminated from her job via email,  and five days later had her first court appearance on a contrived felony charge of “attempting to influence a public official.” Her trial is scheduled to begin tomorrow (December 1st). She has received, and 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.

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. His attorney Charles Feldman, 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.”

The advertised purpose of background screening for law enforcement applicants is to assess their “suitability” for employment in a position involving the privileged exercise of coercion. One need not be a cynic to suspect that the actual purpose of such scrutiny is to obtain potential leverage against employees who might become troublesome – by placing the demands of conscience over the dictates of tribal solidarity, for instance. Police officers understand better than most of us that it takes very little for a motivated prosecutor to turn a harmless person into a criminal.

Two years ago, disgusted by the overt militarization of the SSPD and the “contempt for outsiders” that characterized Chief Rae’s administrative style, Bantle applied for a patrol position with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office. In preparation for a polygraph examination – a procedure that is every bit as scientifically valid as the Roman practice of seeking portents in the entrails of slaughtered animals – Bantle described two episodes in which she used forbidden substances while in the department’s employ. One of them involved a cannabis-infused “gummy” provided by her husband, who has a medical marijuana prescription. On another occasion several years ago, she was offered cocaine by her sister-in-law. She had not disclosed those incidents in her preliminary job application.

Bantle, who was employed as part of a narcotics task force in Mason County, Michigan before moving to Colorado in 2011, can reasonably be considered a hypocrite for privately indulging in a vice for which she helped put other people in prison. That is just one of the countless layers of hypocrisy displayed by the murderous exercise in official derangement that is drug prohibition.

Working undercover in the narcotics task force, Bantle frequently conducted “controlled buys” of drugs from people targeted for arrest. Narcotics officers are taught that, at their discretion, they can actually consume the contraband in the presence of suspects in order to make a bust.

“When I went through Narc school, we were told to make the choice at the time that was right for [officer] safety,” Bantle explained to me, although she emphasized that this was not permitted as a matter of policy while she was with the task force. If she had consumed a “pot gummy” or a line of cocaine while preparing to make an arrest, this wouldn’t have created a problem for her. Indeed, it might have enhanced her job prospects.

Bantle’s lack of candor resulted in her being denied a position with the sheriff’s office. That is the only officially-prescribed punishment for such an omission.

The “penalty” notice at the bottom of the job application specifies that “any falsification, withholding, or failure to answer mandatory questions completely and accurately may cause forfeiture of all rights to employment as an employee with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office.” A similar caveat is provided in the instructions Bantle received regarding the Personal History Statement: “Please be aware that failure to provide complete and accurate information is sufficient cause to deny you employment with this agency.”

Apart from what she described in the background check, there is no evidence of any prosecutable misconduct on her part. The exhaustive background check by the FBI’s National Crime Information Center reported “no identifiable record in the NCIC interstate identification index.” Significantly, neither Sheriff Garrett Wiggins nor Undersheriff Ray Birch (who supervised Bantle’s background check) saw fit to inform the SSPD or pursue charges against the officer –until May 26 of this year, months after she had gone public with her criticism of Chief Rae and the departmental culture he had created.

Two months earlier, in her letter  to the Steamboat Springs City Council, then-Officer Bantle described the “militaristic” culture that had developed in the SSPD under Chief Rae.

“One of my first trainings [sic] 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.”

Former Detective Kleiber provided a much more detailed critique of the department’s militaristic culture in his own March 9 “open letter” to the residents of Steamboat Springs.

“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, who spent nearly 20 years in law enforcement prior to his resignation. “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.”

Kleiber professed disgust over what he described as the departmental focus on “policing for profit.” Chief Rae constantly reminded his officers that they were “at-will” employees expected to generate revenue for his department. This was made apparent when he added a “surcharge” to every citation.

“The money from these tickets 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.

Last spring, an internal affairs investigation into Bantle’s performance as a School Resource Officer was launched after the SSPD received a complaint “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 during which she found a man pleasuring himself with a sex toy, the size and composition of which she described in unpleasant detail. She shared those gamey anecdotes after students – most likely hoping to relieve the tedium of their daily incarceration — 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 not “badge-heavy” and was seen by students and faculty alike as 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.”

Indulging the prurient curiosity of teenagers and occasionally resorting to vulgar language are venial offenses – but it is a species of sacrilege against the exalted Brotherhood in Blue for an officer to admit that police corruption exists.

Reasonable people may conclude that Bantle’s lack of candor justifies her termination. Filing felony charges against her, however, is an unambiguous act of retaliation. According to local defense attorney Kris Hammond, the cover charge used against her – “attempting to influence a public servant” – is frequently employed to chastise Mundanes who offend their uniformed overseers.

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 demonstrating to her former colleagues what they could expect if they undermine the solidarity of the enforcement caste.