‘An excuse for nearly everything,’ Resignation in-lieu of termination for Killdeer police chief
Records related to former KPD Chief Eric Braathen show history of violence, questionable judgment and derelict leadership.
KILLDEER, N.D. — A wave of allegations of misconduct and corruption has hit Killdeer's police department, prompting the resignation of former police chief Eric Braathen. After months of turmoil, the appointment of a new police chief and open records requests have shed light on the issues that plagued the department under its previous leadership.
Complaints and investigation documents reveal that Braathen had a history of violence and questionable judgment prior to being hired by the City of Killdeer. Subsequently, he oversaw a department whose officers were involved in a string of disturbing incidents including public intoxication, threats of violence, policy violations and more that were covered up internally within the police department.
Killdeer City Commission President Joel Spethman and City Administrator Matt Oase say they were taken aback and disheartened to learn the full extent of what was going on within the department, raising serious concerns about the culture fostered and the lack of accountability of its former leadership.
A Concerning History
In 2014, The Dickinson Press reported that Braathen was sworn in as police chief by then commission president Chuck Muscha, after a hiring committee voted in favor. According to records, Braathen has a history of alleged misconduct throughout his law enforcement career.
The North Dakota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board has revealed two complaints filed against former police chief Braathen, while he was a Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputy, dating back to 2006.
The complaints levied against Braathen stemmed from an incident that occurred on July 2, 2006, in which Braathen was alleged to have threatened to kill multiple people and physically assaulted one of them while in an off-duty status in actions beyond the scope of his lawful authority.
The victim, a U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran, filed a written affidavit describing the incident.
According to the affidavit, which was sustained by the POST board, the victim had recently returned home from a deployment after receiving shrapnel wounds in combat operations. He testified that he attended a dance held in Edmore, N.D., when Braathen drunkenly and belligerently approached him, made threats and attempted to provoke a physical altercation. When the victim left the event, he later received a phone call from Braathen at approximately 3 a.m. and met Braathen at the home of an acquaintance.
“He threatened my life with his firearm and swung at me twice, striking my face. I threw him to the ground. He clawed my face and then grabbed my groin, injuring my penis. He continued to threaten, but I just went back home and called 911,” the affidavit stated, with corroboration from multiple other eyewitnesses.
On Nov. 2, 2006, Braathen pleaded guilty to misdemeanor Disorderly Conduct. Upon reaching a plea deal, a criminal judgment in the case was deferred for one year provided that he did not violate any criminal laws. Braathen subsequently joined the Nelson County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. In May 2007 the ND POST Board issued a deferred one year suspension of his peace officer’s license, concurrent with the Disorderly Conduct deferment.
In June 2011 Braathen had an on-duty incident with Lakota, ND, rancher Rodney Bossart over a cattle dispute. Following this incident, the Nelson County Sheriff resigned and Braathen left the department.
Brossart claimed in a federal district court filing that Braathen shocked him with a taser gun at least five times, "with the specific intent of inflicting pain," causing "temporary and permanent injuries, and extreme emotional distress.”
The rancher’s wife and son were also present for the incident, and the three of them filed a civil lawsuit against the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office as a result of Braathen’s actions. The son, Thomas Brossart, alleged Braathen wantonly tased him while he was in the backseat of the patrol car.
The lawsuit ended in 2020 with a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs when Judge Donald Hager awarded them $8,153 in monetary damages.
Braathen later moved to Killdeer, ND, where he was hired as police chief for the Killdeer Police Department.
In an internal report document provided to The Press following an open records request, Killdeer Police Officer Michael Moseley claimed that Braathen immediately began to foster division and spur acrimony among entities in the community — among other complaints related to his leadership of the department.
“On multiple occasions Chief Braathen has spoken derogatorily about the city commission, Matt Oase, Dunn County Sheriff and Sheriff's Department, Dunn County SROS and my other partners. Braathen has created division and made it very difficult for me to have a good working relationship with the city and sister departments,” Moseley’s report stated.
Negligent Leadership, Officers Olson and Schmidt
As Chief of Police in Killdeer, Braathen was part of a hiring committee and recommended the hiring of two new officers in Luke Olson and Cole Schmidt, who were later hired in March 2019 and September 2020 respectively. Both were the subject of multiple verbal and written complaints related to their professionalism and behavior while officers with KPD — complaints that were allegedly ignored by Braathen.
Olson had been previously dismissed from another law enforcement agency after a giglio order — meaning that the state’s attorney refused to prosecute any case referred by Olson on the grounds that he had sustained incidents of untruthfulness, candor issues and other issues placing his credibility into question.
Court documents obtained by The Press show that then Pembina County State’s Attorney, Rebecca Flanders, issued said giglio order on Dec. 12, 2018. Olson submitted his letter of resignation to Sheriff Terry Meidinger two days later, only to be hired less than three months later by KPD.
According to minutes from a May 2019 meeting of the ND POST Board, Olson was terminated from the Pembina County Sheriff’s Office for perjury while testifying regarding a July 2018 DUI arrest he conducted. Olson subsequently filed a lawsuit against Pembina County, which was ultimately dismissed in March of 2022.
In a Dunn County Sheriff’s incident report Cpl. Tyler Rintamaki stated that he found Olson hiding behind a tree in the middle of the night with Olson in an off-duty status and upon engaging in conversation said that he observed Olson to have bloodshot eyes and the odor of alcohol on his breath. He claims that Olson was confrontational and emotionally volatile, reportedly threatening to break the deputy’s arm and later resisted while multiple deputies forced him into the back of a patrol car, at which point he punched the patrol vehicle cage.
“I contacted (then) States Attorney Davis and advised her that we had found Olson. SA Davis advised that all guns were accounted for and to bring him back to his residence and that all firearms be secured in the vehicle,” Steinley further stated in his report.
Olson was terminated from his position later that same day during a special meeting of the Killdeer City Commission.
On at least two occasions Dunn County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the residence of the other aforementioned officer, Cole Schmidt. Both incidents were related to domestic disturbances.
The first incident occurred in the early morning of Oct. 8, 2020, and the second just before midnight on Oct. 29, 2021. According to Steinley, Schmidt was heavily intoxicated on both occasions and one of them resulted in intake into detox at the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center after being released from the hospital. Both times Dunn County Sheriff’s Deputies showed up at Schmidt's residence to assist with the incidents.
Steinley stated Braathen told him that after the second incident Sheriff Gary Kuhn met with Braathen and unsuccessfully “demanded” Schmidt’s firing, then relaying that his deputies would not assist in any more incidents involving Schmidt and his off-duty personal matters.
Steinley also alleged that Schmidt was making “invalid arrests” due to what he perceived as insufficient information in Schmidt’s police reports, further highlighting concerns after Schmidt was caught on camera sleeping on the job at City Hall.
Schmidt’s time with KPD reached a boiling point the following October of 2022, after another incident involving alcohol occurred at a local high school sporting event — an incident complaint that was forwarded to The Press by Braathen, after his resignation.
Several weeks later Oase reportedly summoned the SRO who was at the scene when Schmidt was armed with a handgun and intoxicated at a local football game and questioned the officer regarding the incident. The SRO was subsequently sternly reprimanded by Braathen for speaking to Oase, the HR director, about the incident and ordered that if anyone from the city asked him further questions that he was to speak to Braathen first. The SRO viewed this as an unreasonable suppression of his rights and a hindrance of accountability.
Oversight and Future of the Department
When asked how Braathen was hired, allowed to remain as the chief and cover-up multiple incidents of officer misconduct, Oase explained that he does not have direct authority over the police chief and described his role as more of a “liaison” between commissioners and city staff.
Oase said he had apprehensions about Braathen’s leadership early on in his tenure in 2018, but did not become aware of the worst examples of misconduct within the department until the fall months of 2022.
“I wish I could have done a better job with that, but at the same time you put a lot of trust in your police chief. No different than any other department… They were not being brought to our attention,” Oase said.
Killdeer Commission President Joel Spethman was elected in June 2022, and had been tasked with the police portfolio. Spethman said he was shocked when he confronted Braathen about the football game incident.
“I asked him about this scenario and I said, ‘You don't have a problem with this at all?’ And he said, ‘No, I don't. What's the big deal?’ ‘You have an officer that is intoxicated on school grounds. You don't have a problem with that,’ ‘No, I don't.’ So at that point, I already had my mind made up. That is not right,” Spethman said.
A special meeting of the Killdeer City Commission was held on Nov. 28, 2022, with police officer employment being the sole agenda item. Commissioner Joe Hurt motioned to terminate the employment of Braathen, who asked if he could resign in-lieu of termination. Braathen’s resignation was unanimously accepted by the commission.
Dion Steinley was promoted to interim police chief shortly after the special meeting. Steinley began his law enforcement career in 1994, earned a master’s degree in criminal justice and served for much of his career as a chief deputy in Montana.
In a report obtained by The Press, Steinley denounced the indifference shown by Braathen in leading the department.
“I tried to bring deficiencies in Olson's behavior to Chief Braathen's attention; he would have an excuse for nearly everything Olson did, and I let it go at that, feeling I had done my part in bringing items to his attention, which was the scope of my required duties,” he stated. “It was certainly my professional opinion that Olson was not only a subpar officer, but was of poor moral character. To me, character and integrity are paramount if someone is to serve the public as an officer. I do not suggest perfection, as I am certainly perfect in no way, but I believe that an officer needs to be held accountable, and held to higher professional and personal standards, since even off-duty behavior can negatively impact the reputation of an entire department.”
Steinley wrote that despite everything that happened, he felt Braathen wasn’t a bad guy and had “some good qualities.”
“In defense of Chief Braathen, I will say that I like him, and supported him in his sheriff's race,” Steinley stated. “Even with Eric's weaknesses, I thought he might really try to improve things. Unfortunately, since his loss, I think he has become bitter, (which I can't say I blame him at some level, I've been there), and has made some rather poor decisions administratively, which actually seem to have been a pattern over years.”
He explained he believed Braathen is capable and competent as an officer and even potentially as a first line supervisor, but not as someone who should be overseeing an entire department.
Spethman complimented Steinley for what he’s done to improve morale since assuming the leadership of the department, and said he sees a bright future on the horizon for policing in Killdeer.
“We’re just trying to focus on the future and what we have now with Chief Dion… He’s really stepped up to the plate and is available. He’s been doing an excellent job,” Spethman said. “Whenever there’s been anything that’s come up with something serious, he's always been in touch with me and our city auditor. So we're able to all be on the same page, figure things out and have that communication. So that’s been a plus.”