Robyn Krile picked up a job two weeks ago catching shoplifters at Kmart. A year ago, she was a sergeant supervising a team of police officers catching criminals around Bismarck.
“It’s something,” she said. But it’s a difficult change for someone who had aspirations to someday become a lieutenant or even police chief.
Her career shift came after she was fired from the Bismarck Police Department in March.
To Krile, the termination felt like a final blow after years of perceived discrimination based on her gender, which she contested in a complaint filed with the state department of labor in January.
Police said they don’t discriminate against women and that her firing was the result of an independent letter from a local prosecutor challenging her credibility as a witness.
Now Krile says she's fighting to even the playing field for women at the department and take back her career.
“(There is) part of me that says I’m done with that department. But part of me says that someone needs to step back in and fight ... And it’s only going to get worse if someone doesn’t stand up,” she said.
Climbing the ladder
Krile, 37, was hired as a Bismarck Police officer in 2004 after graduating from the University of Mary with a degree in social and behavioral sciences. As an officer, she received several letters of appreciation and commendation and enjoyed training new recruits. Rarely did issues of gender arise, she said.
“(My supervisors) put a lot of faith in me and passed me a lot of challenges as to help me realize my skills and learn that I could be a supervisor,” she said in an interview with her attorney this month.
In January 2013, she was promoted to the rank of patrol sergeant. She contends this was where her career plateaued.
In the interview, she described a series of moments when she sought additional training or promotion and was faced with what she alleges were new policies that prevented her from achieving opportunities offered to males.
“There was always another reason why they couldn’t groom me and couldn’t allow me to advance,” she said.
Krile is one of four women, including former Police Chief Deborah Ness, hired in the past 40 years to have a rank higher than police officer. Women represent 12 percent of the force in Bismarck, which is consistent with national averages.
Things began to decline sharply for Krile in March 2016 when she chose to call out Melvin Vargas, an officer on her shift, for making arrests without backup officers present. Krile said she saw this as a safety issue and brought him into her office for a talk. The conversation escalated into yelling, and she said he could not make arrests without backup and that she would write him up. In the interview, she said Vargas was insubordinate and aggressive.
Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler reprimanded her for allegedly lying about the policy — backup is best practice, not required — and saying she did not know of officers making solo arrests, which police say happens with some regularity. He also said she singled Vargas out for reprimand and mishandled the interaction.
After that, she was moved to a different shift due to supervision issues, according to police. Krile told some of her subordinates that the reason she was moved was because Vargas, who is Hispanic, had pulled the “race card.” In October 2016, Police Chief Dan Donlin issued her a second letter of reprimand.
“I find the choice you made, to spread inaccurate information to subordinate officers at the expense of disparaging and defaming another officer’s reputation, to be unacceptable and shameful,” Donlin wrote in a letter.
Following this incident, Krile was given a yearly evaluation score of a 2.9 out of 5 by her lieutenant. That’s the lowest score in the department and just one-tenth of a point below what she would need to put in for a promotion to lieutenant.
“I really felt that it was to intentionally to keep me from being able to get promoted,” said Krile, adding that she oversaw some of the most major crime scenes and suspect searches that year.
Evaluation records provided by her attorney, Chris Redmann, show that most female patrol officers at the department scored in the bottom half of the rankings in 2016. Scores are used for potential promotions and pay raises.
Donlin, who limited his comments due to the labor complaint and possible litigation, said Krile’s problems started once she became a sergeant.
“I think it is fair to say Ms. Krile was, for many years, a valuable member of the Bismarck Police Department and was well liked by many. However, after becoming a sergeant, she made some pretty serious mistakes,” he wrote in statement to the Tribune that cited the two letters of reprimand.
In interviews this month, he denied her claim that the department discriminates based on gender.
“If there are any problems at the department that could be perceived as that, it’s personality differences,” he said.
Donlin said promotions are competitive processes and factor in experience, knowledge and tenure.
He contends that there are very good female officers in the department, who are satisfied with their roles as officers, and for that reason do not put in for ranking positions. In March, another female officer was promoted to sergeant, he noted.
“There’s two females out there that have been there for a while, I’d love them to put in for sergeant,” said Donlin, adding there are also “up and comers that I’m looking forward to.”
A fast termination
Krile had just finished teaching young officers on March 23 how to write reports when the deputy chief told her that she could resign in the next two days or be fired.
The basis for her termination, she would learn, was a letter from Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer challenging her credibility.
Lawyer reviewed Krile’s personnel file earlier that month after she received an anonymous letter about another officer. The letter cited a previously undisclosed internal affairs investigation into Bismarck Police Officer Scarlett Vetter, who was reprimanded in 2013 for throwing away a purse with marijuana stems in the department’s women’s locker room.
Vetter and Vargas declined requests for comment made through the police department.
“Once I got that information, since we’d never heard about that before, I thought, well, we should check and see if there is anything else in anyone else’s files that we hadn’t heard before that may be something we have to disclose,” Lawyer said.
Because of some major Supreme Court decisions, prosecutors must tell defense attorneys potentially discrediting information about their witnesses, including police officers. Lawyer claimed Krile’s statements referenced in the letters of reprimand could get her discredited on the stand.
“Because this includes misconstruing the facts to such an extent that it misleads the fact finder and outright lying, our office will no longer be able to use Sgt. Krile to testify in our cases,” Lawyer wrote in a letter dated March 22.
But to Krile and her attorney, it was an “illogical and unreasoned conclusion” based on an investigation “wherein the BPD took innocent and immaterial statements and categorized them as 'lies.' "
In writing the letter, Lawyer emphasized that Krile allegedly told her lieutenant that officers never make arrests without backup unless there are exigent circumstances. She reviewed eight cases where Krile signed off on a police report and cited one in which the officer had no backup. But dispatch logs provided by Redmann show that officers had help on the other seven, an indication that Krile’s statements about backup may not have been totally off-base.
There was no immediate way for Krile to contest Lawyer's finding, which effectively bars her from working again in law enforcement.
Although Lawyer said Vetter now has a credibility issue she needs to disclose, Vetter remains on the force. Lawyer said the difference was Vetter was more truthful in the internal affairs investigation.
Lawyer did not find previously undisclosed problems with any other officers.
Donlin and Lawyer say the labor complaint and termination happened completely independent from one another. The police chief described learning of Lawyer’s determination as a “bombshell.”
“I thought it was done and over, and there you go,” Donlin said.
But Krile's attorney says, "the termination was a convenient ending for the Bismarck Police Department after a pattern of gender-motivated discriminatory conduct against my client."
Redmann, a former Fargo Police officer and FBI analyst, pointed out that the Police Officer Standards and Training Board decided within a few minutes of discussion in May that Krile’s actions did not violate the code of conduct or justify any sanctions. Krile still has her peace officer license.
“We didn’t see enough evidence on our end,” Board Chairman and Minot Police Capt. John Klug said in an interview.
Donlin said he had no choice but to fire Krile after getting the letter.
“If you can’t be used as a witness, you can’t do your job as a police officer, so we have to let you go,” Donlin said.
Krile’s complaint with the department of labor was assigned to an investigator this month, after the police department declined to mediate. She and her attorney are continuing their investigation and considering litigation over gender-based discrimination.
“Robyn’s primary goal in both litigation and public attention to this case is to ensure her experience, in some way, betters her female patrol colleagues at the police department — it is so her experience turns a page, and female patrol officers in the police department are offered the same opportunities, are competitively ranked and consequently competitively paid when compared to their male counterparts,” Redmann wrote in an email. “Secondarily, Robyn wants to have logic and the law prevail, which both indicate the Giglio (credibility) letter should be removed from her personnel file as it was erroneously issued. This will allow Robyn, a career civil servant, to continue as a law enforcement professional.”