Sexual harassment and the city of Cincinnati: a dozen complaints over 5 years

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Every case of sexual harassment is different, but these tips can help if you want to take action. USA TODAY

A dozen Cincinnati city employees were accused of sexual harassment over the past five years while working in recreation centers, police cruisers, garbage trucks and other job sites.

The accusations, obtained by The Enquirer through a public records request, would sound familiar to anyone paying attention to the #MeToo movement and the growing list of complaints against celebrities, politicians, media personalities and others.

The complaints against city employees run the gamut from physical contact, such as kissing and groping, to lewd comments and unwanted advances. The accused include sanitation workers, police officers and a recreation center director.

Eleven of the 12 claims are against men and four involve police officers. All but one of the complaints were resolved with discipline short of firing, usually a suspension of a few days or a letter of reprimand.

Those who kept their jobs include a man accused of shoving his hand up a woman’s shirt and another accused of exposing himself to a female co-worker while they sat in a truck together.

In one complaint, a police officer accused a fellow cop of making inappropriate advances to her while they worked at the Mount Auburn scene of the fatal shooting of Sam DuBose, who was killed in July 2015 by a University of Cincinnati police officer.

Each of the city sexual harassment complaints involve one accuser. The exception is Police Officer Dwight Pewett, who has been accused of misconduct involving three women.

The number of complaints is not large, an average of 2.4 per year for a city that employs 5,600 people. But concern about employee conduct and the explosion of sexual harassment allegations across the country has prompted the city to review its policies and to launch a new employee training program.

The city isn’t alone. Several state governments as well as cities such as Phoenix, Austin and Washington, D.C., are reviewing policies or increasing training.

“This is about creating a culture that is safe,” said Cincinnati Councilman Christopher Smitherman, who led the charge on City Council to make harassment prevention a priority.

He said he’s worried the number of complaints in the city doesn’t reflect the actual problem because many employees simply don’t report harassment on the job. He also said he wants the city to get tougher on discipline, including the possibility of firing someone for a first offense.

“I want to see … a policy that says council and the city have zero tolerance,” Smitherman said.

After City Council approved Smitherman’s push for stronger policies in November, The Enquirer requested all sexual harassment claims filed against city employees over the past five years. Smitherman made a separate request for the same information.

Of the 12 complaints filed in that time, the only employee to lose his job was a recreation center director who was accused of inappropriately hugging a 15-year-old girl and biting her on her back in 2013. He denied biting the girl, according to his disciplinary record, and said he was just joking around with her.

After hearing from witnesses, however, city officials decided to fire him for failure of good behavior.

Other cases include:

  • A police officer accused of mistakenly texting an image of a penis to a co-worker instead of to his ex-girlfriend, as he intended. He was reprimanded.
  • A female officer who used police records to find the home address of a colleague so she could sign him up for porn magazine subscriptions. She received a six-day suspension.
  • A Waterworks employee accused of chasing, grabbing, hugging and kissing a woman he worked with, despite her repeatedly telling him to stop. He received a two-day suspension.
  • A Metropolitan Sewer District worker accused of using lewd language during a meeting, in which employees were told they could no longer take chairs to sit on at job sites. “Can she sit on my d—?” the man allegedly said to a female co-worker. He was suspended one day.
  • A sanitation worker accused of repeatedly asking a female colleague if she wanted to see his penis. Despite her protests, she told investigators, he exposed himself to her anyway while they sat in the truck. Declaring it a “he says, she says” situation, the accused man was not punished. The woman who complained was reassigned to another location.

City officials hope the new sexual harassment and misconduct training that began last month will help prevent future complaints. “Given the attention this is rightly receiving around the country, we should always be looking for how we can improve,” said City Manager Harry Black.

City employees can do the training in person or online. Smitherman was the only member of council to attend the training in person last week.

For details about the program, city officials referred questions to Deborah Adams, the outside lawyer who was hired by the city to lead the training.

Adams said the goal is to make sure everyone from top bosses to new hires understands the expectations. As a rule, she said, employees should behave as if they’re on a job interview every day and not as if they’re in junior high.

If problems do arise, Adams said, employees who see the behavior and supervisors who learn of it must act quickly. She said that’s the best way to keep minor problems from turning into serious offenses.

“Employers have a burden to provide a workplace free of harassment,” said Adams, a partner at the Frost Brown Todd law firm. “But employees have a burden of helping them do that.”

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