The women at his Georgia State Patrol post knew 46-year-old trooper Chris Niehus “had a past,” so in January when he sent a series of strange Facebook messages at odd hours to a female dispatcher less than half his age, her alarm bells started ringing.
Unnerved, the dispatcher voiced her concerns to a supervisor. Departmental policy requires supervisors to immediately report this kind of behavior. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the young woman’s supervisor told her “to keep the situation quiet,” so Niehus wouldn’t get into trouble. Then, the supervisor walked outside and called Niehus to warn him to stop messaging the dispatcher.
“I came back inside and told (the dispatcher) she was OK. I advised her to unfriend him and this would be over. I told her I handled it,” the supervisor wrote in a statement. “It was over, misunderstood and not necessary to continue telling people, because it can really get people in trouble.”
Cases like this are why the state is centralizing sexual harassment complaints from employees in the inspector general’s office. The reforms came after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found more than 200 sexual harassment complaints across 18 departments and agencies over five years.
It’s been less than two months since new procedures were put into place, and Inspector General Deborah Wallace’s office already has received 52 new complaints, not including the one from the dispatcher. At this rate, Wallace’s office will review more than 200 cases this year alone.
“It’s a lot,” Wallace said.
The volume has taxed her small office, which didn’t get additional money or staff this year to go along with the new responsibilities.
The details of the 52 cases reported so far haven’t been made public, because they are still under review. But a summary provided by Wallace’s office shows the breadth of reported complaints. So far, 21 state agencies have submitted complaints, ranging from the Department of Corrections to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
Now that she’s seen the scope of the task, Wallace said she is preparing to ask for some additional support.
“As much as it’s put on us, it’s clear to me that we were needed. I’m grateful to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s sad to me that it took this long. I wish that we had this years ago.”
Addressing toxic cultures
While Wallace’s office is required to collect and review complaints and outcomes for fairness, she doesn’t have the staff to investigate cases herself. That remains largely the responsibility of the individual departments.
To guide them in properly investigating sexual harassment claims, Wallace said her office has conducted three training sessions so far this year, involving 275 state employees. Those training sessions have been encouraging, she said.
“In my view, it seemed that people were extremely receptive and pretty much just soaking it up,” she said.
But there are still wide variations across state government. Some investigators are human resources workers, while others are attorneys, and Wallace said the state still is in “uncharted waters” when it comes to handling some complaints.
For example, if a department decides it cannot conduct an unbiased investigation, Wallace has to find a substitute investigator from another agency. So far, that’s been a challenge, she said. Employees in one agency are reluctant to set aside their own duties to adopt an investigation in another department, and the inspector general’s office doesn’t have the authority to command them to do it.
The AJC investigation last year discovered that state agencies were allowed to handle complaints in ways that fit their office’s “culture” and business needs. The result: random approaches to how sexual harassment was investigated and wide variations in discipline for similar offenses. No one agency had any grasp of the total number of complaints.
The investigation also uncovered toxic workplace cultures where women had to endure dirty jokes, pornography and sexual propositions from male coworkers, and some were even at risk of physical and sexual assault.
In response to the AJC’s findings, last fall, then-candidate Brian Kemp pledged to reform the system. In January, the new governor made good on the promise by ordering the State Inspector General to serve as an auditor and clearinghouse for complaints from across the state. The move was intended to ensure that employees who claimed they were being harassed would get an even shake.
Trooper faced earlier allegation
Trooper Niehus had been the subject of an earlier harassment complaint, and the Georgia State Patrol secretary who filed that one didn’t feel like it was handled properly.
Lynn Troha complained that Niehus harassed her, including describing his sexual dreams about her, inappropriately touching her and texting in ways she believed were invitations to sexual encounters.
In the course of the investigation, Niehus admitted telling her several times that he was attracted to her but said he perceived her to be “flattered.” In the end, the Department of Public Safety investigation found Niehus acted inappropriately, but it decided the flirtations were “mutual,” despite Troha’s complaints.
Troha told the AJC she believes they gave Niehus all the benefit of the doubt without seeing it from her perspective.
“And guess what happened two years later? You are back in that same boat,” she said. “If they had addressed it the first time, it never would have happened a second time.”
The dispatcher’s complaint against Niehus this past January ended differently, despite the supervisor’s initial attempt to keep it quiet.
Niehus had started messaging the 20-year-old new hire who worked the late shift just a few hours after meeting her. It started with a digital “wave” just before 3 a.m.
Hours later, he messaged again, “Whatcha doing?”
“Just pulled up to work,” replied the dispatcher, whose name is being withheld because she didn’t consent to being identified as a victim of harassment. Later that same day, she discovered Niehus had gone through her Facebook photos, “liking” some showing her in formal dresses. Then another message with his cell phone number.
“It’s easier to text me on it,” he said.
While her supervisor did eventually report the complaint, the supervisor only did so after showing the dispatcher pictures of Niehus’s wife and child to show he was a “family man,” according to the report. For voicing her concerns, the dispatcher later told investigators she believed she was “being made the bad person.”
The investigation found Niehus harassed the dispatcher, and the department demoted him and transferred him from his south Georgia post to a post in Madison. The department also required him to take remedial workplace behavior training, even through he had just completed a similar course six months earlier, passing the multiple-choice exam with a perfect grade.
The AJC reached out to Niehus, but he did not respond to an invitation to comment for this story. His demotion was effective March 26. Five days later, Niehus posted a link on Facebook to a law enforcement website where an officer claimed to have been disciplined for holding the door open for a woman.
“This happens all the time,” Niehus wrote. “You cannot even joke or cut up with people without consequences that will follow you for the rest of your career.”
He has since deactivated that account.
The AJC asked for an interview with the Georgia State Patrol about the complaints, but instead the agency asked the newspaper to submit questions in writing. In response, GSP spokeswoman Sgt. Stephanie Stallings said the agency stands behind its original investigation of Niehus, while saying the demotion and remedial training resulting from the second complaint was “appropriate.”
Challenges to reform
If the state wants to seriously address sexual harassment, Kemp and Wallace may face resistance from departments where the workplace culture has protected harassers.
Along with the two complaints against Niehus, the AJC found 17 other sexual harassment complaints filed over five years at the Department of Public Safety, ranging from supervisors telling dirty jokes to unwelcome touching and sexual propositions.
In one case, a lawyer in the department was drunkenly propositioned by a state patrol captain during a late-night bus ride, the woman alleged in a sexual harassment complaint. During the same bus ride, other male law enforcement officers chanted her name and attempted to pull her to the back of the bus where one man said they wanted to show her a penis.
During the course of the investigation, the captain was allowed to avoid possible punishment by retiring. The lawyer, however, faced accusations by a DPS investigator that she was “flirtatious” and found she had to fight for her reputation.
“I now greatly sympathize with women who make the difficult decision to report sexually inappropriate behavior of male co‐workers,” she wrote in an email.
While Stallings denies that GSP tolerates sexual harassment, the Department of Public Safety was one area of state government where the AJC found complaints about supervisors keeping a lid on sexual harassment complaints. That suggests a departmental culture resistant to change.
In Troha’s case, three supervisors were reprimanded for failing to report when she told them about Niehus’s alleged behavior. That violated a policy requiring supervisors to report claims of harassment up the command chain, regardless of whether the alleged victim asks for it.
In the most recent case, Stallings said the supervisor’s attempts to contact Niehus were “inappropriate.” That supervisor was disciplined, according to the investigative report.
“Her role as a supervisor is (to) report perceived violations of policy without voicing her personal opinion about the validity of the employee’s complaint,” Stallings wrote in a statement.
If DPS commanders are taking the issue more seriously now, it apparently hasn’t filtered down to the rank and file. There have been two more complaints from the department since the centralized reporting system went live last month.
If state employees fear that their own supervisor or department won’t deal with the harassers, Kemp’s reform provides safeguards. If employees go the old route of reporting up the chain in their department, it now must notify the inspector general within two days of receiving any complaint. Employees also have the option of going directly to the inspector general’s office.
Wallace, who has been with the inspector general’s office in various capacities since its founding in 2003, said she is troubled by what she’s seen so far. A culture that protects harassers can drive away skilled workers and bring extra cost to taxpayers, she said.
“It’s 2019. What part of this do we not get? We are supposed to be professionals,” she said. “Work culture starts at the top, and if the top is not walking the talk — if they are disgusting, themselves …”
She didn’t finish the sentence.
Staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.