Des Moines police union boss retired after harassment claims

A lawsuit alleges the longtime president of the Des Moines police officers’ union sexually harassed women but was allowed to retire without discipline or criminal charges

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The longtime president of the Des Moines police officers' union sexually harassed women inside and outside the department but was allowed to retire without discipline or criminal charges, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Four female employees of the Des Moines Police Department allege in the lawsuit that they were sent unsolicited explicit photos by Des Moines Police Bargaining Unit Association President Stew Barnes in 2019 and 2020, including many of himself naked.

The department let Barnes, 61, retire in August 2020 with full benefits despite “overwhelming evidence” of his harassment of co-workers and employees of a tanning salon and a credit union, the lawsuit claims.

Department leaders recognized him at a retirement banquet in October 2020.

A police spokesman has claimed that Barnes could not face disciplinary action once he retired. One of the women was told that officials could not find that he harassed anyone because, once retired, they were unable to "get his side of the story," the lawsuit says.

But Iowa law allows pension boards to deny retirement benefits to members who are not “in good standing,” including those who face pending disciplinary proceedings for misconduct. The lawsuit argues that Barnes should have been disqualified from benefits and faced a criminal investigation, alleging he was using police resources “to find and stalk women” and that his victims were ready to cooperate.

“It sends the message that you can sexually harass someone and walk away and retire if you are at the end of your career,” said Des Moines attorney Jill Zwagerman, who is representing the women.

Barnes had worked as an officer at the department since 1994 and led the nearly 300-member union since 2001. He didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.

The lawsuit alleges that the department’s handling of the case is part of a sexually hostile culture that needs to change.

The lawsuit names the department and the city of Des Moines as defendants and alleges gender discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. In addition to three officers and a digital evidence specialist who say Barnes harassed them, a fifth woman alleges she has been passed over for promotions because of her gender.

The lawsuit claims that female employees are routinely subjected to sexist comments, unwanted advances and other demeaning behavior by male officers. The plaintiffs say they have been punished for filing complaints, while offending male officers get promotions or can quietly retire or resign.

The plaintiffs include senior police officer Tracy Rhoads, who says she has faced sexual harassment from male employees since she was hired in 1997. She alleges Barnes approached her in 2019, saying, “Get a load of this,” before scrolling through his phone and showing her pictures of his penis and others in which he was naked.

She and other women say that Barnes was relentless, continuing his harassment long after they told him to stop. Barnes pressured the women to participate in bets in which the loser would have to do “naked dares" and send photos, the lawsuit claims. Barnes sent photos of himself without clothes while riding a lawnmower and raking leaves, the suit says.

The women say they were reluctant to report Barnes’ behavior because they feared alienating their union and had faced retaliation from the administration for prior complaints.

After Rhoads came forward in August 2020, she asked the assistant chief about the status of the inquiry days later. The lawsuit claims that he told her “it was done” because Barnes had quit, without looking up from the television he was watching.

One department official told an employee who received nude photos from Barnes that she should be happy he was gone rather than critical of the lack of accountability, the lawsuit says.

But the department's problems continued. Just last month, another office resigned after making inappropriate comments to Rhoads and about another woman in front of superior officers, the lawsuit says.