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Another Lincoln officer who came forward about harassment, discrimination suspended

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Another police officer who has come forward with concerns about sexual harassment and discrimination within the Lincoln Police Department has been suspended and now is the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation.

Officer Luke Bonkiewicz has been a visible part of LPD, working in part as a public information officer until last year, when he was moved to education and personnel. 

The Internal Affairs investigation of Bonkiewicz is one of at least half a dozen made of officers who have complained about sexual discrimination or harassment or who have supported the women who have. Two lawsuits have been filed so far, in addition to one that was settled last month.

Bonkiewicz — who received a Mayor's Award of Excellence in 2014 for studying LPD's mental health referral program and in 2018 was named a National Institute of Justice LEADS Scholar for his work using scientific evidence in evidence-based policing — was suspended without pay Feb. 8.

Asked about the decision to suspend Bonkiewicz, Chief Teresa Ewins did not refer to him by name, but issued a statement Feb. 11: "Due to public interest of this issue and our ongoing effort to provide greater transparency with our community, I am informing the public I received information that would indicate an employee with this department did not fully and accurately provide information to an Internal Affairs investigator."

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She said in light of the allegation, she placed the employee on a 30-day suspension while the matter was thoroughly investigated.

In the emailed statement, Ewins called it a personnel matter and said she wouldn't name the employee or provide additional details.

She said the investigation does not detract from the great work of LPD. Every day, the women and men of the department serve the community with integrity and selfless dedication to public safety and that work will continue, Ewins said.

Requests for comment made to Bonkiewicz by the Journal Star went unanswered.

A week before his suspension, Bonkiewicz's name appeared on a journal article in Police Quarterly, along with former LPD Officer Angela Sands, who was fired in December, and three others from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, titled “Police Sexual Violence: A Study of Policewomen as Victims,” which examines instances of sexual violence against women within police departments.

His name has since been removed from the article. 

The women interviewed for the article broadly blamed a prevailing sexist culture at their agencies from rank-and-file officers to administrators for assaults occurring and going unreported.

Research suggests it's uncommon, the authors wrote. "Nonetheless, its existence and constant threat of occurrence within a profession designed to prevent and investigate such incidents is sobering."  

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The study included female officers across three states in the Midwest, South and East regions of the U.S., and didn't name any specific police departments. But some of the allegations outlined mirror allegations made in recent lawsuits against the city of Lincoln. In January, Officer Erin Spilker filed the most recent, alleging years of discrimination based on her sex and insufficient efforts to investigate her reports.

In an email obtained by the self-described left-leaning website Seeing Red Nebraska sent from Bonkiewicz to Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird's chief of staff nearly a year ago, Bonkiewicz described a "dark undercurrent" in the Lincoln Police Department.

He said there was "a pervasive subculture that marginalizes female sworn officers, ignores reports of sexual harassment, and fosters an environment that discourages women from reporting both sexual harassment and sexual assaults committed by male employees."

In the email, he said in his 10 years at LPD, he's spoken with many women about their experiences in the department.

"To be sure, many of them report positive experiences, and LPD is an exceptional agency in many respects. However, many women also report atrociously sexist and even assaultive behavior by male co-workers," Bonkiewicz wrote in the email sent in March 2021 to Jennifer Brinkman. 

He listed more than a dozen incidents, including accounts where a male officer groped a female officer's breasts at an off-duty gathering; male officers showed cruiser camera or body-worn camera footage of sexual assault victims (some nude) to other officers; a male officer grabbed a female officer's butt as she checked out equipment for her shift; and a captain tried to groom new female officers, telling them they had to sleep with him or their career would suffer.

Bonkiewicz said some perpetrators have left the department, but many remain. 

"This problem did not suddenly emerge, and it will not suddenly disappear. It will take leadership of the highest caliber to address this problem and bring about a massive, sorely overdue cultural change," he wrote in the email, which he said was intended to provide feedback to the mayor as she chose the next police chief. 

The city denied the Journal Star's public-records request for Bonkiewicz's email.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Rowley said it was exempt from disclosure under a state statute involving records developed by law enforcement that "constituted a part of the examination, investigation, intelligence information, citizen complaints or inquiries."

The city, however, did release a second email requested by the Journal Star, sent Jan. 1, 2021, from Sands, Spilker, Melissa Ripley and Sara Khalil to Gaylor Baird regarding the search for a new police chief.

"Fearing for our careers and safety, there were occasions we stayed silent. We can no longer tolerate the hostile and discriminatory work environment that plagues this department, and we hope for a more promising future not only for ourselves, but for other female officers and potential female recruits that our force so desperately needs."

Each of the women is represented by attorney Kelly Brandon in current or anticipated lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting. 

On Monday, City Attorney Yohance Christie said he was unable to comment on Bonkiewicz's suspension.

“This is a personnel matter. We owe an obligation to our employees to keep their personal information confidential. I will not be commenting on personnel issues.”

In January, city officials briefed the City Council on the situation at LPD during an executive session, at the request of council members.

Councilman Tom Beckius, who asked for the briefing, said the purpose was “to learn more about the efforts being undertaken by the Lincoln Police Department to ensure all employees have a safe workplace."

“After reviewing department policies and trainings, I do not believe there is a need to intervene,” Beckius said Monday. “But I will be paying close attention as pending complaints are heard and decided.”

City Council Chairman James Michael Bowers also said in a separate statement Monday that the council will continue to monitor the situation.

“In recent months it has become public that several female LPD officers have filed lawsuits alleging sex discrimination,” he said. “We support the right of everyone to seek redress through our court system, and we do not condone harassment of any kind. While we expect that these matters will be disposed of appropriately through our judicial branch, the court system, we can assure you that we will closely monitor these cases and act accordingly upon any conclusion.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger

Reporters Andrew Wegley and Margaret Reist contributed to this story.

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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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