After a four-day trial, the jury deliberated for about two hours before returning a verdict stating the city of Sidney did not wrongfully terminate Robert Stinchfield. Stinchfield had filed a lawsuit against the city in January 2020 citing wrongful termination and seeking compensation of $82,701, the maximum the state would allow.
The trial began on Tuesday, April 13 morning with the selection of jurors, followed by opening statements and one witness, the plaintiff, Robert Stinchfield in the afternoon.
During his testimony, Stincfield talked about his aspirations for becoming a police officer and then was questioned on his understanding of the policy manual. Stinchfield stated his understanding was that he fell under the city’s full employee manual, which stated that certain disciplinary actions must occur prior to termination. Stinchfield stated those actions did not occur.
Stinchfield also testified he signed a statement acknowledging he understood the full manual.
Stinchfield also testified about his first year with the department and he felt he was doing a good job and also about completing the police academy.
Stinchfield discussed his evaluation from 2017, a call he responded to and a traffic stop. The testimony attempted to show he was treated differently concerning Stinchfield placing the suspect being placed in the front seat of the patrol car than other officers who arrived on the scene and did not correct the situation. Stinchfield said allowing a person to sit in the front seat during a traffic stop is common practice at the department.
Stinchfield talked about being placed in remedial training and as a result, Stinchfield said he decided at that time he should apply for a position elsewhere and he applied for a job with the Billings Police Department.
He received a conditional offer from the department and informed (at that time) Lt. Kraft of the offer.
There was also testimony where Stinchfield talked about undergoing five scenarios during remedial training and was told he failed three of the five. Stinchfield stated he felt he actually passed all five.
Former Police Chief Frank DiFonzo told Stinchfield he was being terminated but offered him the chance to resign rather than be terminated. He also said Kraft offered to recommend him for a job but not as a police officer.
He stated he had not been told or offered documentation he had violated department policy up to that point.
Stinchfield testified that he then attended a police and fire committee meeting with officials from the city and the police department concerning his employment. At that meeting he was presented with documentation from the department concerning his performance and evaluations for the first time. The list of violations was a 35-page document.
He then received a letter from Mayor Rick Norby on Oct. 2 stating Capt. Kraft recommended he be terminated, giving Stinchfield 14 days to respond. The mayor included a letter concerning city policy on termination but during testimony, Norby said attaching that portion was a mistake.
Stinchfield was terminated on Nov. 5, 2018 according to his termination letter. He subsequently received a letter from the Billings Police Department stating he was no longer being considered for a position in the department.
Stinchfield also said he believed Kraft held animosity toward him and was “out to get him.” The plaintiff stated that was his feeling or belief.
Stinchfield then testified that he did not agree with some of the claims of officer safety violations and did not always follow the instructions given by superiors. Stinchfield also stated he felt officer safety was subjective and he did not believe he had ever violated officer safety practices.
DiFonzo was asked about the department’s policies and procedures concerning disciplinary issues. DiFonzo stated the hiring and firing of employees would fall under the city’s responsibility. DiFonzo stated he suggested Stinchfield resign rather than be terminated.
When asked if there was a conspiracy to get rid of Stinchfield, DiFonzo said it was too difficult to find law enforcement officers so every effort was made to keep them.
Police Chief Mark Kraft (who was a lieutenant at the time) was called to the stand and asked about the alleged policy violations and when Stinchfield was made aware of the violations. Kraft said Stinchfield was well aware of the requirements of an officer and the performance of his duties.
Capt. Travis Rosaaen was then asked about the procedures for internal complaints. Rosaaen stated the employee would be questioned and an investigation would be conducted concerning the complaint. Rosaaen stated he did not conduct the investigation into Stinchfield’s performance. He was also asked about the process for evaluating an officer and who would be responsible for the evaluations. According to Rosaaen, the person assigned to the officer would be the one who conducted performance evaluations. D’Afton then had Rosaan compare ratings in two different evaluations.
During cross examination, Rosaaen said recommendations and suggestions for handling situations were normally given orally.
In reviewing Stinchfield’s evaluations, Rosaaen’s comments stated the officer had issues with officer safety that puts him in compromising situations and did not always “use the tools” given to him to improve.
Rosaaen was also asked if there are occasions where actions are subjective and he stated that at times they were. When asked if it was possible for an officer to use bad judgement in making subjective decisions and he agreed that it was possible.
Kraft testified that the department was understaffed by two officers and recruiting law enforcement officers was very difficult due to the political climate and location. Along with recruitment, retention is also an issue as well, said Kraft.
Former Sidney police officer Tyler Kammerzell came to the witness stand next. He stated that he had worked for the Billings Police Department twice. His first time with the department ended during his training phase and he then applied for the Sidney Police Department. Kammerzell discussed the adjustments he made between jobs and his return to the Billings Police Department after leaving Sidney.
He also testified about the department’s training program (FTO), stating it is a certified program used by numerous departments. Kammerzell also talked about officer safety issues with Stinchfield, including parking in front of a scene and interviewing suspects in a kitchen where possible weapons are available. Kammerzell also listed a number of officer safety issues which occurred during a traffic stop. According to Kammerzell, Stinchfield was instructed about safe practices but continued to violate safe practices during his training and afterwards. He also said during training, the training officer goes over a call immediately after the call and then files a report on the calls for the day at the end of the shift. Both parties sign off on the report.
During cross examination, Kammerzell was asked about three separate calls, including a suspect who was interviewed in a kitchen and a second incident where a suspect refused to cooperate during a warrant service. Kammerzell continued to state that Stinchfield made officer safety mistakes during each call.
Kammerzell did state there were times an individual is allowed to sit in the front seat but whether or not that is appropriate depends on factors of each situation. Kammerzell stated the traffic stop in question should have been treated as a felony stop and the individual should not have been allowed to sit in the front seat.
Kraft, who returned to the witness stand, also substantiated earlier testimony on Stinchfield’s officer safety practice deficiencies during multiple calls, giving his opinion of how those calls should have been handled.
During cross examination Kraft was questioned about Stinchfield’s treatment for violations compared to other officers in the department including an incident in which Officer Laura Finn drove her vehicle with her lights off on a dark street. Kraft stated she had not been disciplined for that instance. He was then asked if Stinchfield was made aware of specific notes Kraft had placed in the record and Kraft responded that Stinchfield had been treated more than fairly throughout the entire process.
In closing arguments, William D’Afton (Stinchfield’s attorney) made an impassioned plea for the jury to “give Robbie justice” and to send a message to the city by finding Stinchfield had been wrongfully terminated, now citing a plot by Kammerzell to get the job at Billings that had been offered to Stinchfield.
The trial also included video depositions as well as body cam footage of Stinchfield while responding to calls.
Gerry P. Fagan, attorney for the city, asked the jury to weigh the actual facts in the case rather than be distracted by failed attempts by the plaintiff’s attorney to portray the termination as a vendetta by either Kraft or Kammerzell or failure to follow policy.
After a brief deliberation, which included lunch, the jury found in favor of the city.