WTOC Investigates: Board of Regents reports detail former SSU Police Chief's alleged misconduct

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - More than three months after three female officers accused former Savannah State University Police Cheif James Barnwell of sexual misconduct, investigative reports from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia detail exactly what those women say happened.

"There was touching," said Pierre Ifill, an attorney representing one of the accusers. "There were suggestive sexual encounters."

The Board of Regents started its investigation into whether their allegations against Barnwell violated Savannah State University's sexual harassment policy in March. SSU placed Barnwell on paid administrative leave the same month. The university announced in May he was no longer serving as chief after a Board of Regents investigator found evidence to support he violated SSU's sexual harassment policy.

The alleged encounters often happened while Barnwell and the accusers were in uniform or at the police department on campus, according to the investigative reports.

Barnwell "made comments about the complainant's appearance, suggestively looked at the complainant and otherwise expressed sexual interest in the complainant, made propositions to perform sexual acts with the complainant, retaliated against the Complainant because she did not wish to pursue an intimate relationship with the respondent, which created a hostile work environment," Ifill's client told the investigator.

"We understood that these allegations were going on, but to have an investigator to substantiate a lot of the claims that at least my client was making, it was very profound," Ifill said.

She goes on to say Barnwell "looked her up and down in a sexual manner," "hugged her and while doing so his hands 'went too close to [her] behind,'" "stared at her butt and breasts" during a required training, and "inquired about being able to perform [a sexual act]."

A second officer accused Barnwell of talking to her "regarding non-work matters of a sexual nature," "made propositions to establish a social or otherwise intimate relationship," "touched her buttocks, upper leg, and lower leg on various occasions," "engaged in retaliation against the complainant because she did not wish to pursue an intimate relationship with the respondent and filed a complaint against the respondent."

She goes on to say he asked her about her relationship status and sexual experiences, and she "described being 'in fear' of the respondent and 'constantly looking over her shoulder' since she has turned down his advances and filed a formal complaint with the university."

"The Complainant stated that the Respondent has made it clear to her and others in the department that he is well connected in the city of Savannah and that he does not 'have to have an agenda to get rid' of his employees," according to the report.

A third officer "alleged that on two consecutive nights the respondent entered her sleeping area and performed [a sexual act] on her without her consent" while they were sleeping at the police department during Hurricane Matthew. The investigator interviewed several witnesses who "stated that immediately after the hurricane a rumor circulated throughout the department that something sexual happened between the complainant and the respondent."

That officer also told the investigator Barnwell asked "multiple times 'Why you don't want to do it,' referring to pursuing a sexual relationship," and Barnwell "made it clear to his staff that he is a well-connected and powerful person not only within the department but also in the city of Savannah," leaving her "constantly looking over her shoulder."

"There was a culture over there at Savannah State to not say anything when others saw the egregious acts of Chief Barnwell and the inability of the university to protect its employees," Ifill said.

The university released a statement to WTOC Monday saying, "Savannah State University (SSU) takes all complaints of employment misconduct seriously. When SSU received complaints from within the police department through our office of the General Counsel, SSU immediately began investigating. Those investigations are now complete. The department remains focused on its mission, which is based on service, integrity, professionalism, and teamwork. Because the complaints and the subsequent investigations relate to personnel matters, we have no further comment."

Barnwell's attorney, Carlton Stewart, of The Stewart Firm, LLC, did not return a request for comment Monday. However, his statement on behalf of Barnwell and Barnwell's affidavit are included in the investigation reports.

In them, Barnwell states, "I deny any allegations of sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, comments, retaliation, bullying or threats relating to misconduct in the performance of my duties." He also says, "It is evident this is a clear form of retaliation and character assassination," and that "he has spent 32 years in the police department and it does not make sense that in a few months of working at Savannah State University that he would 'lose his mind.'"

"For him to blatantly deny these allegations and not take full responsibility for them just shows what type of character he has, and I'm wondering if this type of activity was happening when he was with Savannah Metro also," Ifill said.

The two case files WTOC received from the city of Savannah through an Open Records request regarding Barnwell's time with then-Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department aren't sexually-based complaints, and the department didn't take any disciplinary action.

The standard for evidence in the Board of Regents investigation isn't as strict as it would be in a criminal case, for example. The investigator only needed to decide if it was more likely than not Barnwell's conduct violated the university's sexual harassment policy.

"Is it more likely than not that Chief Barnwell committed these acts?" Ifill explained. "Is it more likely than not that the university failed to take reasonable actions in protecting their employees?"

Savannah State University's Sexual Harassment Policy states:

Federal law provides that it shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any employer, because of the sex of any person, to discharge without cause, to refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against any person with respect to any matter directly or indirectly related to employment or academic standing. Harassment of an employee on the basis of sex violates federal law. Sexual harassment of employees or students in the University System is prohibited and shall subject the offender to dismissal or other sanctions after compliance with procedural due process requirements. Unwelcome sexual advancements, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

In all three cases, the investigator found the preponderance of the evidence supported charging Barnwell with violating of the university's sexual harassment policy. However, she did not think there was enough evidence to support their claims Barnwell retaliated against them.

Ifill said he is currently waiting on his right to sue letter from the EEOC. Then he plans to file a civil suit against Barnwell, Savannah State University and the Board of Regents.

"She has medical records to attest that the stress that was being placed upon her at work that wasn't work related that was due to these sexual allegations caused her to have a heart murmur," Ifill said about his client. "Based off that, we're going to be seeking just compensation for her medical issues, for her mental anguish, loss of consortium because this affected her actual relationship with her husband, and we're going to be seeking, potentially, punitive damages against Cheif Barnwell for his nefarious acts. She is going to have to uproot her family from this area to find employment elsewhere, so we're looking to right the wrongs of the university and Chief Barnwell in a monetary fashion."

Ifill said his client is also planning to pursue criminal charges against Barnwell.

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