UI police officer's behavior went unchecked for years

UI police officer's behavior went unchecked for years

URBANA — A campus sexual-harassment investigation has concluded that the University of Illinois Police Department failed to stop repeated inappropriate behavior by one of its veteran training officers, particularly toward new female recruits, documents show.

While the investigator found the conduct — including unwanted touching and suggestive remarks — did not violate the strict campus sexual-misconduct policy, she said it was "highly inappropriate" and ordered that it end immediately, according to the July 14 report from the UI's Office of Diversity, Equity and Access. The report was shared with The News-Gazette after the UI refused to release it through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Several witnesses reported that the behavior was "well known and frequently discussed within the department as problematic," and one department administrator called it a "lawsuit waiting to happen," wrote investigator Kaamilyah Abdullah-Span, senior associate director of ODEA.

Except for informal conversations following complaints by other officers, "the department has failed to adequately address and prevent similar behavior from continuing, thus subjecting multiple individuals in the department to unwanted touching, inappropriate conversations, and unwarranted interactions," she wrote.

"The result has been that those in the department who are most vulnerable are left to figure out not only how to navigate the challenges inherent in being a new officer, but also how to create a safe working environment for themselves."

Police Chief Craig Stone, who joined the UI a few weeks before the 14-month investigation wrapped up in July, said Friday he took immediate steps to address its recommendations, including corrective action for the officer, sexual-harassment training for all supervisors and administrative changes to provide clearer reporting lines.

"It's very important that you have a workplace that is welcoming and inviting with respect and integrity for all employees," he said. "I want to reinforce and make sure that everyone knows that this behavior is not acceptable and needs to be reported immediately, and I'll take swift action."

Chancellor Robert Jones, who has pledged to work with the Academic Senate to review the campus sexual-misconduct policies, also has invited the women involved to meet with him to discuss their concerns, UI officials said Friday.

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The investigation followed concerns raised by female police officers, including a formal complaint filed by Officer Michelle Kaeding, who joined the force in June 2015. Ten of the department's 61 officers are women, including three supervisors.

Kaeding, backed by other unnamed officers in the report, said Officer Brian Tison directed unwanted attention toward her and other women during their field training program and beyond. Tison, a 22-year veteran of the department, is involved in mental health intervention training programs for police statewide and is part of the department's crisis intervention team.

As soon as Tison was assigned as Kaeding's supervisory training officer in March 2016, he immediately began commenting on her hairstyles, making her uncomfortable, she said in the report. When she had to ride in his car, Tison would rest his hand on her headrest, play with her ponytail or move stray hairs as she drove, the report said.

On one occasion, he squeezed her right knee while she was driving, and on another he reached over while she was driving to remove lint from the chest area of her uniform, Kaeding said in the report.

During briefings, the report said, he would sit uncomfortably close to her, brush up against her, touch her arm, hug her or play with her hair.

In one case, the two were patrolling Campustown when Tison commented on a student's legs, then told Kaeding that "her legs would look nice in the shorts that the student was wearing because she had nice legs," the report said.

While they maintained a cordial professional relationship, Kaeding said in the report, she made it a point to limit her interactions with him.

For his part Tison, who is married, told the investigator that he considered Kaeding a friend. He said his actions were consistent with how he treats other officers, male and female, regularly greeting them with hugs unless they tell him they don't like it, the report said. He said he told Kaeding from the start that he was a "touchy-feely person and likes to hug," and asked if she was uncomfortable with that, the report said. He said she didn't object at any point, and if she had he would have stopped, it said.

He didn't recall the conversation about Kaeding's legs but acknowledged commenting on her hair, saying he always tells female officers that a "power bun" is his favorite hairstyle because it looks professional, the report said.

Tison conceded draping his arm across the car headrest but said he does that when he's driving alone. He also said it's "common practice for officers to groom each other," including removing lint from dark blue uniforms, the report said.

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Contacted by The News-Gazette, Kaeding declined to comment for this story.

Tison issued a statement to The News-Gazette, saying, "There was a Title IX investigation prompted by one female officer. The result of that investigation was that I had not violated the sexual-harassment policy of the University of Illinois. I cannot speak to specifics because that would violate department policies and code of conduct."

But other female officers interviewed by investigators told similar stories, one almost identical to Kaeding's, according to the report. One officer said Tison told her "he loved seeing her breasts out of a uniform," adding that she was advised not to be alone with him, the report said.

Another witness said Tison once started unzipping her vest while they were talking about police uniforms, the report said.

Another witness said that during her field training, Tison played with her hair and tried to engage her in "sexually suggestive conversations, attempted to kiss and hug her, and informed her that he was interested in dating her despite knowing that she was in an existing relationship."

All 15 department witnesses interviewed — 10 women and five men — reported that Tison is a "physical person." Like Kaeding, some witnesses felt that he specifically targets women, especially new officers, the report said. Others said he is physically affectionate toward both men and women, particularly with hugs and shoulder massages. Most felt his behavior was "off-putting," the report said, but some described it as friendly or platonic.

While most said Tison would stop if asked, a few reported that he didn't until they alerted administrators, with one saying he is "oblivious to social cues," the report said.

Witnesses reported that there had been "multiple conversations with Officer Tison about his behavior and the concerns expressed by women in the department," the report said. One witness said Tison even joked that he has been "reprimanded for being too touchy-feely so he has to watch himself," the report said.

One male witness said he felt Tison is "harmful to the department's reputation."

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Despite her "repeated discomfort" with Tison, Kaeding said she didn't tell him about her objections, or report him at the time, because she felt vulnerable as a new officer still learning her job, the report said. But she shared her discomfort with a few trusted officers, the report said.

It was only after an exit interview by one of those male colleagues that the allegations came to light and were reported to ODEA, the report said.

Abdullah-Span said Kaeding had taken "reasonable steps" to inform colleagues who had an obligation to report the conduct up the chain, if not act on it, the report said. At one point, Kaeding asked to be assigned to a different officer. But the training supervisor was Tison's wife, who acknowledged he could be "touchy-feely" but said he was the best officer to address her unnamed performance deficiencies, the report said.

Abdullah-Span also said it was unreasonable for Tison to put the burden on Kaeding, as a new officer in training, to tell him that his conduct made her uncomfortable.

As a veteran officer "who has repeatedly been informed by his superiors that his hugs and other physical gestures have made some in the department uncomfortable, Officer Tison has a heightened obligation to be more cognizant of his interactions and attuned to others' reactions," she added.

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As with another high-profile case at the UI law school, however, Abdullah-Span said Tison's conduct toward Kaeding did not meet the definition of sexual harassment in the UI's policy: unwelcome sexual or gender-based conduct that is "severe or pervasive," objectively offensive and unreasonably interferes with an employee's ability to do her job; or that is used by someone in authority as a condition of employment or status.

While Tison's behavior was persistent and unwelcome, Abdullah-Span said in the report, she couldn't conclude that it was sexually motivated or targeted at Kaeding because of her gender, given the conflicting impressions of witnesses. She also said there was no overt threat of force or intimidation and, while his behavior made her uncomfortable and made work unpleasant for others, it didn't appear to impede Kaeding's job performance or create a hostile environment.

Still, the evidence revealed a pattern by Tison of engaging colleagues, particularly new female officers, "in a manner that he knows or should know may make them feel uncomfortable," the report said.

Hugs, shoulder rubs and playing with colleagues' hair "are all unprofessional and highly inappropriate for a workplace setting," Abdullah-Span wrote.

"Of greatest concern is the department's tacit acceptance of Officer Tison's conduct," she said.

She chided the department for a "male-dominant culture" that lacks mutual respect for male and female officers. Similar complaints about a "good ole boys" system surfaced in a recent climate survey of officers by the police union, obtained by The News-Gazette through a FOIA request.

Abdullah-Span recommended that the report be placed in Tison's file, along with a letter ordering that he immediately discontinue that behavior.

Abdullah-Span also commended Kaeding for taking the "bold step" of reporting her concerns beyond the department and "insisting that substantive action is taken to curtail the behavior."

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Officer Taylor Franzen, who worked at the UI for three years before leaving in August for a job with another police department, isn't satisfied. She said it's a contradiction to say that Tison's behavior wasn't sexually motivated but that he should have known better.

Based on what she's heard about the report, Franzen said, the hearing officer also "didn't seem to understand the power dynamic" between a field-training officer and a new recruit.

"He's the one grading her and says whether or not she gets to keep this job or pass training," she said.

Franzen said she tried to avoid contact with Tison while at the UI but is familiar with the complaints from talking with other female officers in the department. She believes them, and feels the department should take stronger action.

"I'm surprised they never put him on administrative leave," she said. "I would have liked to see him fired, honestly, or forced to retire early.

"I don't trust him with female officers," she said.

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Asked if Tison was disciplined, Stone said he utilized the "performance partnership program" that's part of the UI's labor agreement with the police union. He declined to be more specific.

"We're doing everything we can within the constraints of the collective-bargaining agreement," he said. "Some people may not be satisfied with the ultimate outcome, but I took the action that I was able to."

"What I've tried to focus on is a culture of respect and integrity," he said.

The chief said Tison is no longer a field training officer, action taken before Stone arrived.

Stone's first day on the job was June 18, and he said he didn't find out an investigation was underway until after he was hired.

Once he received the report, he said his first priority was to separate the victim and the accused, then organize the sexual-harassment training for all supervisors.

Abdullah-Span had also recommended that the department review its process for reporting and handling harassment or misconduct complaints. Some officers had said "the reporting structure is either not well known or rife with familial or business relationships."

Stone said that process and the administrative structure have been streamlined. He's also made it clear that "there will not be any retaliation toward anyone who was a witness or a victim as a result of that report."

"I will not tolerate this type of behavior," he said. "These things should not occur. I take every allegation seriously."

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Jeff Christensen, who retired in December 2017 after five years as UI police chief, declined to comment on specific allegations in the report, which he hasn't seen.

When Kaeding's colleague initially reported the concerns about Tison in 2017, Christensen said he immediately asked a member of his upper command to talk to the women involved and let them know they could file a complaint with ODEA. Christensen said he also asked one of his deputy chiefs to give ODEA a "heads up," he said.

"I'm glad the officers came forward," he said. "As soon as I heard about it, we acted."

Christensen said he made some staffing adjustments in the meantime and, once Kaeding filed the complaint, he stayed out of it to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

Of the criticism that the department ignored previous complaints about Tison, Christensen said, "If I would have known about it or heard about it or seen something that I felt would have made people uncomfortable, I certainly would have acted upon that."

Christensen, who spent 32 years at the department, said he can only remember one serious harassment allegation that was looked into "years ago," and noted that a woman, Barbara O'Connor, preceded him as chief.

He believes the culture at the police department is "pretty healthy," but acknowledged that it's difficult for individuals to come forward with complaints.

To improve communications, Stone said he now holds an open forum each month where he shares updates and employees can ask questions outside the chain of command.

He said overall "we have a great department here. I think we're doing a great job of keeping the campus community safe."

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