Exterior of the Sheboygan Police Department building.
The Sheboygan Police Department building is photographed on Nov. 8, 2022 in Sheboygan, Wis. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)
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This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.

A community organization is calling for the Sheboygan Police Department to act after Wisconsin Watch and the Sheboygan Press reported earlier this month on the department’s handling of three internal investigations into sexual harassment in 2021.

“As an organization focused on supporting victims and holding individuals accountable, what is published alleges that the exact opposite happened,” Safe Harbor of Sheboygan County said in a news release. Safe Harbor provides prevention, intervention, education and outreach services to end domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Meanwhile, the police department is investigating still another complaint related to sexual harassment made by an employee in the past few months. The Sheboygan Press and Wisconsin Watch do not know the identity of the target or targets of that fourth probe.

In all, 10 officers were disciplined and two others admonished as a result of the 2021 sexual harassment investigations, which focused on inappropriate behavior including viewing or sharing nude and semi-nude photos of co-workers without their knowledge or consent. 

Police Chief Christopher Domagalski said his department took the 2021 harassment complaints very seriously and held offending officers accountable.

Sheboygan’s then-human resources director, Vicky Schneider, thought the discipline “sent a message that female employees had no legitimate protection against this kind of behavior from their male co-workers,” her attorney wrote in documents from her own discrimination case that she filed with the state Department of Workforce Development before resigning.

Safe Harbor wants accountability, transparency

“The existing culture of the Sheboygan Police Department and the City of Sheboygan allowed this (sexual harassment) to happen and go as far as it did,” Safe Harbor’s news release stated. “The eyes of the Sheboygan community are on the police department and city administration in how they handle these allegations, discipline the offending employees, and support the victims, including those who have come forward and any who have remained silent.”

The organization called for a “complete review of the policies, training, reporting avenues, and support mechanisms in place for victimized employees and potential whistleblowers.”

Deanna Grundl, vice president of Safe Harbor’s board of directors, said the organization is “really just saddened and surprised” by the scandal.

“Some people may look at it as just a picture, but behind that picture is someone who had something done to them that they didn’t want done,” Grundl said. “When that happens, whether people want to be identified as victims or not, nonetheless, that person unfortunately became a victim of gender-based violence.”

Safe Harbor works closely with the department and will continue to do so. “Their officers and administration have traditionally demonstrated professionalism and compassion in working with our advocates and victims,” the news release stated.

Mayor says city will ensure ‘situations like these don’t happen again’

At a Sheboygan City Council meeting after the Wisconsin Watch and Sheboygan Press articles were published, Mayor Ryan Sorenson said the city’s “top priority moving forward is to rebuild the trust” of employees and the community.

“We have already begun the process of … ensuring our internal policies and procedures reflect the values and expectations of the community,” he said, later saying the city was already updating its code of conduct, violence in the workplace, whistleblower and other policies.

Sheboygan mayor Ryan Sorenson is seen at city hall.
Sheboygan mayor Ryan Sorenson is seen at city hall on Nov. 8, 2022 in Sheboygan, Wis. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

“I am committed to ensuring that leadership at every level of municipal government takes allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power seriously,” Sorenson said.

Sheboygan’s newly-hired human resources director is working with the police department to correct problems, the mayor added.

Accountability also “has to start with” Sheboygan’s Board of Police and Fire Commissioners, Sorenson said.

In addition to approving all officers’ hiring and promotions, the five-citizen commission hears complaints against members of the police department in a public, trial-like setting if concerns remain after those complaints are dealt with internally. 

The police chief, a member of the commission or any aggrieved person can file a complaint with the commission. After a hearing, the commission decides appropriate discipline for officers up to and including the chief of police, if warranted.

Sorenson added: “I share everyone’s frustration that this happened, but I’m not focused on retribution. I’m focusing on making sure that we can fix these mistakes so that situations like these don’t happen again.”

Reach Maya Hilty at 920-400-7485 or MHilty@sheboygan.gannett.com. Originally published by the Sheboygan Press

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Maya Hilty is a local government reporter at the Sheboygan Press. She covers stories related to Sheboygan city and county government, schools and more.