URBANA — New sexual-harassment complaints, including one made by the University of Illinois itself, have surfaced against UI Police Officer Brian Tison, who was the subject of a sexual-misconduct investigation in 2017-18.
Documents obtained through an open records request show a female staff member filed a complaint against Tison in January, though the details were blacked out.
And the university filed a complaint on behalf of four officers in the department who were “reluctant to file themselves,” UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Thursday, responding to questions from News-Gazette Media.
Kaler confirmed that an outside attorney has been hired to investigate the allegations because the Office of Access and Equity, which usually investigates Title IX sexual-misconduct complaints, is “short-staffed.”
UI officials declined to provide more details about the complaints, as the cases are still under investigation. A report is expected later this summer.
But Kaler said the allegations involve incidents brought to light during the 2017-18 sexual-harassment investigation by the UI's Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, now known as the Office of Access and Equity.
That inquiry was launched after Officer Michelle Kaeding filed a formal complaint about Tison’s conduct toward her and other women in the department, including while they were recruits under his training.
Kaeding, who joined the force in 2015, said during her training Tison would comment on her hairstyle, sit uncomfortably close or brush up against her in meetings, play with her ponytail or squeeze her knee while she was driving, and once removed lint from the chest area of her uniform.
Several unnamed witnesses related similar stories about unwanted hugs, touching and suggestive remarks by Tison, who is married, according to the investigative report.
One officer said Tison told her “he loved seeing her breasts out of a uniform.” Another said Tison once started unzipping her vest while they were talking about police uniforms, the report said.
And another witness said that during her field training, Tison 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.”
In her July 2018 report, ODEA investigating officer Kaamilyah Abdullah-Span concluded that Tison’s conduct did not violate the standards of the campus sexual-misconduct policy, as it wasn’t severe enough to impede Kaeding’s job performance or create a hostile work environment, and it wasn’t clearly targeted only at women. The report noted that some witnesses said Tison was known to give physical affection to men and women alike, especially hugs and shoulder massages.
But Abdullah-Span called his behavior unprofessional and “highly inappropriate” and chided the police department for failing to stop it. Witnesses reported there had been “multiple conversations” with Tison about his behavior, with one administrator calling it “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Abdullah-Span recommended that the report be placed in Tison’s file, along with a letter ordering that he immediately discontinue that behavior.
Officer still on the job
The investigation’s outcome upset some officers who felt stronger action was warranted.
Last fall, Chancellor Robert Jones and Police Chief Craig Stone met with some of the female officers to discuss how to address their concerns.
Rusty Barcelo, then a special assistant to the chancellor, encouraged the women to report any allegations to the Office of Access and Equity, which investigates sexual-misconduct complaints, “and offered resources to do that,” Kaler said.
The complaints filed this year by the university and the individual employee “are the result of this encouragement,” she said.
Kaler said it isn’t unprecedented for the university to pursue a complaint on behalf of an employee when he or she is reluctant to go forward. Those situations are considered on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“It is contingent on the seriousness of the allegations,” she said. “They balance the wishes of the complainant with the overall safety of the campus.”
Tison is still on the job, though he stopped supervising recruits in July 2018. Stone also said last fall that he took unspecified corrective action under the terms of the police union agreement.
Tison has declined to comment on specific details of the original complaint, though he noted in a statement last fall that only one officer filed a complaint and that the investigator found he did not violate the sexual-misconduct policy.
In the report, Tison told investigators that he considered Kaeding a friend and never realized she was uncomfortable with him. He said that his actions were consistent with how he treats other officers, male and female, and that he had told her from the start he was “a touchy-feely person who likes to hug,” and she didn’t object. He also said it’s “common practice for officers to groom each other,” including removing lint from dark blue uniforms, the report said.
He did not respond to a News-Gazette Media email on Friday about the latest complaints.
AG sides with newspaper
Tison also filed a grievance last fall arguing that it was inappropriate for the Title IX report to be publicly distributed.
News-Gazette Media had filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the UI last August for a copy of the investigative report. The UI denied the FOIA request, but the newspaper subsequently obtained the information from other sources and published a story Nov. 4.
The newspaper also filed an appeal with the Illinois attorney general’s office, which ruled last month that the report had to be released.
The police department reviewed Tison’s complaint and asked News-Gazette Media how it obtained the information. The newspaper refused to divulge that information.
UI Police spokesman Patrick Wade said the complaint was later closed, and no action was taken.
“It was impossible to determine how the report was made public or whether any policies were violated in doing so,” he said Thursday.
Asked about changes made by the department since the initial complaints came to light, Kaler pointed out that Stone arranged for formal sexual-harassment training for all supervisors as soon as he learned about the situation. Stone joined the UI in June 2018, just before the first report came out.
The department later provided additional training for all personnel and posted the UI’s sexual-harassment policy in the briefing room as a “daily reminder for all staff,” Kaler said.
More generally, the department’s field training model has also been adjusted to make the experience more positive for new recruits, she said.
“Culture change takes time, but the department has focused on creating a positive workplace atmosphere where people are excited to come to work,” she said.
That includes promoting staff members who have demonstrated leadership qualities, such as “an enthusiasm to reward good work and to hold people accountable when the department’s standards are not met.”
“Chief Stone has made it clear in his communications to staff from his first days on the job last summer that unethical behavior in the workplace, including sexual harassment, will not be tolerated either by himself or these new leaders,” she said.