A city investigation has absolved Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes of creating a hostile working environment after a former officer alleged in a civil rights complaint that the chief asked questions pertaining to her sexual orientation and romantic preferences.
The investigation centered around a Dec. 3 exit interview between Barnes and Mikaela Gardner, who served as a police officer from January 2020 to December 2021, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
During the interview, Gardner said, she told Barnes she was leaving the force to be closer with her family in Illinois, adding that if she had a family of her own in the future, she’d like to be close to them. The report shows Gardner recalling Barnes asking something like, ‘’if you found love or romance in Madison, would it get you to stay?’”
After she laughed, Barnes offered to help her out, asking along the lines of “What do you prefer — male or female? I don’t care about your preferences; let me know — I can keep an eye out for you.”
Gardner mentioned that she didn’t feel that Barnes expected or hoped for an answer to the question of her sexual orientation; rather, she felt he was referring to potential [physical] features in a partner, but expressed discomfort at the nature of the questions, calling them “weird.”
“I wouldn’t say I was outright disgusted or offended,” Gardner said. “It was just weird coming from the chief, the boss of all bosses, someone I had never spoken to before. It felt awkward. In the course of the conversation, I felt like, ‘do I answer, do I not, why are you asking me this?’”
Addressing the potential ways his comments could be perceived, Barnes said that the Madison Police Department has a retention problem, and he views exit interviews as “last-chance opportunities to possibly retain employees or keep the door open for them to return, and the comments were in direct response to the reason [Gardner] stated for leaving.”
The investigators concurred, stating that it appeared to be a “light-hearted attempt at employee retention.”
After Gardner shared that she felt alone in Madison due to her brother not moving here as initially planned, Barnes said “...Madison is a great place for young people and a great place to find a partner, settle down,” causing a confused look from Gardner, who responded with, “partner?” Barnes then replied, “partner, meaning husband or wife.” Per Barnes’ statement, Gardner replied, “I like men.” Barnes went on to say that “Madison is a great place to find men ... we have tall men, short men, men with teeth, no teeth. It’s a great place for young people.”
Regarding this, Barnes stated, “It wasn’t that I asked her what her sexual orientation was. There wasn’t even a reason to disclose it. I used the word ‘partner.’ The concept of ‘what’s your preference’ wasn’t part of the question. I don’t agree that she was asked to disclose. She questioned, ‘Partner?’ and I said, ‘Male or female.’ She didn’t have to respond to that at all.”
Barnes, who started as chief of police in February 2021, said he recently started using the term ‘partner’ based on advice from other city staff that a gender-neutral term would be more appropriate. Barnes thought the exchange in question stemmed from him clarifying what he meant by that term.
Gardner, who played on UW-Madison’s 2019 championship hockey team, added that the conversation wasn’t appropriate for the setting. “In a professional exit interview setting with the chief, who I have never spoken to, it isn’t a meeting to joke or be comical. We don’t have that relationship.”
Both Gardner and Barnes agreed that there was no expectation that a question regarding sexual orientation would or should be answered. When asked if she thought Chief Barnes expected an answer, Gardner stated, “No, he just continued in terms of a statement of looking out for me.”
The report concluded that the topic of sexual orientation was broached, but wasn’t intended as a question to be answered.
According to the report, the rest of the meeting continued without conflict. “By accounts from both parties, it appears the remainder of the meeting was appropriate… Barnes asked questions related to continuous improvement, areas for improvement within the Madison Police Department.”
The complaint was filed by an unidentified third party on behalf of Gardner on Dec. 9. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway tasked Fire Chief Steven Davis, Human Resources Director Harper Donahue IV and Deputy Mayor Christie Baumel to investigate the complaint. The investigators met with Barnes and Gardner to determine whether Barnes created a hostile work environment by making comments in violation of APM 3-5 related to protected classes (sex), sexual orientation and physical appearance during the exit interview and whether Barnes violated APM 3-5.
The final investigative report, released on Feb. 14, does not name Gardner or the person who filed the complaint on her behalf, but the Wisconsin State Journal had previously confirmed Gardner's identity. The report concluded that Barnes did not create a hostile working environment or violate APM 3-5; both allegations were not sustained. The three investigators were unanimous in their decisions.
City of Madison Chief of Staff Mary Bottari expressed regret that the information concerning the investigation became public.
“It is very disappointing that the confidentiality that is critical to creating a safe environment for people to file complaints was breached. Rumors of the allegations made it to the press, and city staff inadvertently confirmed details about the complaint, which was harmful to both parties. For the city’s part in this, we apologize,” Bottari said.
Bottari underlined that nothing in the complaint accused Barnes of sexual harassment or other sexual comments, despite what some news sources had reported, and reaffirmed the city of Madison's commitment to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination.
In a statement provided to News 3 Now, Barnes said he was pleased the investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, and accepted the apology from the City of Madison.
“Madison is my home. I look forward to using every opportunity to learn and grow as a leader in order to help my colleagues and our community thrive,” Barnes said.