Kristin Bantle, a sixteen-year veteran police officer, received notice of her termination from the Steamboat Springs, Colorado Police Department on August 15 – the same day she had her first court appearance on a contrived charge of “attempting to influence a public official.” The convergence of those events was appropriate, given that they 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.