Boise settles discrimination suit after 2019 police academy incident; three other challenges stalled

Boise Police Department
Posted at 4:06 PM, May 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-11 18:06:25-04

This article was originally published by Margaret Carmel in BoiseDev.

The City of Boise settled out of federal court with a former Boise Police Officer trainee for $400,000 last week.

Former BPD trainee Sierrna Berg filed a sex discrimination suit against the City of Boise, alleging she was retaliated against and became the target of sexist discrimination and malicious rumors after she was a whistleblower who reported an officer put a trainee in an unprovoked chokehold during the academy, according to federal court documents filed May 5.

The City of Boise will pay her $100,000 for lost wages and another $300,000 for “emotional distress, mental anguish, injuries, attorneys fees and court costs, as first reported by the Associated Press.

“All settlements are negotiated at arms length after an assessment of the strength and weakness of a case,” City Attorney Jaime Sullivan wrote to BoiseDev in an email. “Both parties believe this was a fair agreement and look forward to moving past outstanding matters from previous City and BPD leadership.”

Berg is one of four officers who filed claims in court related to this incident, but her case is the only one that proceeded in federal court. Two of the cases from the other officers were dismissed in Ada County District Court, and the third officer never moved forward with filing a case at all.

‘Unfounded rumors’ and altered training records

Berg had a litany of complaints of harassment and retaliation from her time with BPD before being terminated in November 2019.

According to her complaint, she fulfilled her “life-long dream” to become a police officer when she was hired by the Boise Police Department and started at the police academy in January 2019. Her peers eventually elected her to serve as academy class president.

In March 2019, she says she witnessed Officer Josh Kincaid use a now-banned lateral vascular neck restraint on one of the other trainees after a disagreement between the two. She and former class president Jeffrey Triplett reported the incident to their supervisor, but the complaint says it was not reported to BPD’s internal affairs division, and the entire class was punished with push-ups instead.

Berg said she was retaliated against for making the report with sexist discrimination and malicious rumors, including that she was involved in an extra-marital affair with one of her classmates.

“The unfounded rumors were discriminatorily motivated against her sex as a female officer, as well as intended and motivated as illegal retaliation for her protected activity under the IPPEA,” the complaint said.

She graduated from the academy and started the field training program where she was encouraged by supervisor Sgt. Sean Stace to drop out of the program due to “issues at home” distracting her from her work. The complaint said Berg defended herself and denied the circulating rumors. Stace later allegedly required Berg to take longer in the first phase of the field officer program, which delays a promotion and can be a negative mark on an officer’s record, which the complaint says was motivated by “sexist and discriminatory reasons” instead of her actual on the job performance.

Berg’s complaint said Stace chastised her for the pitch of her voice over the radio, which is higher due to being a woman, and her decision to wear bracelets even though they were in compliance with BPD dress code standards. She also alleges she was scheduled back to back alternating day and night shifts, leaving her in a state of constant sleep deprivation and was told if she did not pass muster with Stace, she would be terminated. Berg said she was also reportedly disciplined for using phrases with the public like “please,” “sir” or “ma’am.”

Eventually, Berg alleges she was pulled into a meeting with Stace and another officer to review her field officer training scores. She said her low scores appeared to be fabricated and did not match the body camera footage taken during her training.

Berg was eventually terminated in November 2019 after she objected to having to continue her field officer training and alleging she was being retaliated against and treated poorly because she is a woman.

What about the other officers’ cases?

Berg wasn’t the only one who filed in court over the chokehold incident in the academy.

Joshua Keyser and Jeffrey Triplett also filed a claim in court alleging they reported the chokehold against their trainee and were told they could resign from BPD or be fired. Along with Berg, they alleged their training records were altered in retaliation for making the report.

Keyser eventually filed suit against the City of Boise, but his case was dismissed before it went to a jury trial in June 2021 after his lawyer pulled out of the case, and he did not replace him. And although he filed a tort claim, Triplett never filed a suit.

A fourth officer, Michael Ziegenhein, served as a patrol officer until BPD fired him in the summer of 2020. He alleges he was terminated and later harassed because he corroborated allegations of training record tampering from Berg, Triplett, and Keyser during an internal affairs investigation.

Ziegenhein filed suit against the City of Boise in January 2021, but it was dismissed in March 2022 when both his lawyer and representatives from the city agreed to have the case dismissed. However, it was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be filed again.

Correction: A typographical error changed the meaning of the last sentence of this story. The Ziegenhein suit against the City of Boise can not be filed again later.