“I didn’t know at what point I would gain respect,” Former Lincoln Police officer shares story of harassment, discrimination
LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Crude comments, inappropriate text messages and unwanted advances - these are the realities former Lincoln Police Officer Sarah Williams said she was routinely met with during her tenure with LPD.
“It was alarming,” Williams told 10/11 NOW in an exclusive interview about her experiences within the department.
Williams worked for the Lincoln Police Department from 2013 to 2019 and was the first of three female officers to file lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. Williams’ suit settled with the city in late 2021. The now Omaha Police Officer told 10/11 NOW, the allegations in the lawsuit date back to her very first days on the job.
“I remember vividly a comment made in the summer of 2013,” Williams said. “When I began field training there was a really crude comment about a pearl necklace I wore during my staff photo. That was an immediate red flag.”
Williams said she was 24-years-old when she started with the department. It was her first “real” job.
“Other officers and I would discuss it, whether we were being too sensitive or not, if this is normal behavior,” Williams said.
During her time with the Lincoln Police Department, Williams said it wasn’t all bad. She sent 10/11 NOW photos of her and fellow female officers and at community events. Above all else, Williams said she loves the work.
“I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” she said. “Being an officer is insane; some days it’s the greatest job in the world, other days it’s a heartbreak.”
The lawsuit cites several incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination at the hands of male co-workers; from a male officer repeatedly asking Williams if she was pregnant yet, another officer pulling her hair, a sergeant commenting on her body after a department lake day to being passed over for promotions.
“I didn’t know how to gain respect or at what point somebody else would advocate for me but I learned nobody else would,” Williams said.
Williams is now an Omaha Police Officer and hasn’t worked with LPD in three years or under the current department’s administration. But she said the women who have been with the department more recently remain on her mind. Two more Lincoln Police Officers have filed lawsuits against the city. Officer Melissa Ripley, who still works for the department, filed a lawsuit detailing multiple incidents of discrimination during her tenure at the department. Former officer Erin Spilker filed a lawsuit late 2021 detailing incidents of sexual assault. 10/11 NOW has been told Spilker has resigned from the department.
Three officers have also recently been suspended or fired. Officer Angela Sands was fired in 2021, Officer Sara Khalil was fired in late February and Officer Luke Bonkiewicz has been suspended. The Lincoln Police Department has released multiple statements saying the disciplinary actions are not related to allegations or lawsuits.
Williams said it still concerns her.
“We are all advocating for change,” Williams said. “We’ve failed to see that change and more women and allies are being suspended and terminated.”
Williams said that change, is all she is after. She told 10/11 NOW filing a lawsuit was never the plan, she just wanted a safe work environment like she now has at OPD.
“I’m so much more productive at work. I’m so much happier at work because I’m surrounded by positive co-workers who are just there to do their jobs. I didn’t feel that at LPD.”
All of Williams’ allegations and nearly all of those in the other lawsuits pre-date Lincoln Police Chief Teresa Ewin’s employment by LPD. She was hired last summer. Late Thursday night, Ewins posted a statement to the Lincoln Police Department Facebook page addressing allegations of retaliatory firings and the sexual harassment and discrimination allegations in general. The statement said, in part:
The Lincoln Police Department is comprised of dedicated women and men who selflessly serve this proud city. That said, like any organization of nearly 500 employees, we are not perfect. I will continue to celebrate the hard work of our personnel and our successes but neither will I fail to address instances where we fall short, and I will always encourage anyone who might be aware of potential misconduct to bring it to light, whether they be an employee or a member of the public. That is the only way we can continue to serve with integrity and continue to improve.
In the Lincoln Police Department’s nearly 152-year history, I have been leading it for the past 6 months. I ask for the community’s patience as due process unfolds, which I am confident will show that the employees who have been disciplined under my tenure were done so appropriately. I also ask for patience as we work to build on the police department’s storied history, continuing to succeed where we have and to improve where we may. My promise to you is I will always work to ensure we are serving you with integrity. Thank you for the trust you have placed in me and more importantly, the trust you place in this police department.
Williams said she hopes the Department’s actions will reflect the statements they’ve made.
“It’s not too late. They can do a 1-80,” Williams said.
Here is what we know about recent firings and suspensions:
Sara Khalil, who had been a Lincoln Police Officer since 2013, was fired from the department in late February. A statement from Lincoln Police Chief Teresa Ewins said she was terminated after the city risk management alerted the Lincoln Police Department that an investigation they did showed Khalil had provided false information about an on-duty injury in a workers compensation claim. 10/11 NOW confirmed the police department did not initiate the investigation and also confirmed the city employed a private investigator to follow Khalil, though they wouldn’t release further details.
Officer Luke Bonkiewicz was suspended from the Lincoln Police Department in February as well. He has been with the Lincoln Police Department since 2011. Ewins said in a statement, she was told an officer, who she wouldn’t name, did not fully and accurately provide information to an internal affairs investigator.
Angela Sands, a former Sergeant, was fired from the department in 2021. She had been with the department since 2012. In a KFOR radio broadcast, Ewins said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters specifically, but that Sands’ firing had to do with “untruthfulness.”
While Ewins has maintained the firings were not related to allegations, 10/11 NOW has been told all of those who are facing suspensions or punishment have advocated for women in the department or brought up concerns about sexual harassment and discrimination.
The chief’s full comment is linked below:
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