Police face new battles War waged against sexual harassment

July 15, 1992|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Staff writer

In the not-too-distant past, county police Lt. Jim Fahrman felt free to joke around with his squad -- even going so far as once telling a female officer she could get a new shirt only if her chest was a size 40.

The 16-year veteran made the crack in the days before two high-ranking department officials were investigated on charges of sexual harassment. Lieutenant Fahrman said he was referring to the size shirts he had available.

"She laughed," Lieutenant Fahrman said of the female officer. "But those are the kind of things guys are afraid to say because of the current situation here."

Since February, two captains have been investigated administratively for sexual harassment, while two sergeants have been investigated on similar allegations. The investigation against Capt. Don F. Ward, former head of the Northern District, included an allegation of rape.

The 25-year department veteran retired before he could formally be charged with the allegations made against him by four women. He was never charged criminally.

Shortly after those four came forward, two other women told the department's Internal Affairs Unit that Capt. Richard Smith, head of the Criminal Investigation Division, sexually harassed them. He was charged by the department in April. An administrative hearing is scheduled next month.

In May, Southern District Sgt. George Halpin was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer after he allegedly described a female officer as "good in bed" in front of his squad. He waived his right to a hearing and was given a day off without pay as punishment.

Another sergeant is under investigation for allegedly harassing a female officer -- who he was convicted of harassing eight years ago, after she shunned his romantic overtures. He was suspended after being found guilty of improper performance of duty.

These investigations have prompted Lieutenant Fahrman and other officers to question their limits with female co-workers.

"Where is the line where it becomes offensive?" he asked. "Where is the line for sexual harassment?"

It is not a term easily defined. County policy says sexual harassment can be anything from verbal abuse to "creating a hostile working environment."

Although sexual harassment may have been largely ignored in the past, "Society is gradually changing, and our department will reflect that," Chief Robert Russell said.

Just how -- or how far -- it will change is the big question.

"In the work setting, teasing and joking are included in a positive work environment," said Internal Affairs investigator Sgt. Bonnie Welsh. "It contributes to productivity, and therefore there is a gray line."

To distinguish between innocent teasing and harassment, two factors are the perceived motive and the demeanor of the speaker, Sergeant Welsh says. If the employee doesn't feel that the behavior was done either spitefully or maliciously, the individual will not feel harassed.

"Some women don't like anything even said to them. But I'm not one of those," said Officer Beth Pusloskie, 23. "When it comes to touching, I would put a stop to that."

A colleague, Officer Jeff Little, agreed.

"You could use anything as sexual harassment. It's different for each woman," Officer Little said. He and Officer Pusloskie are friends, and because of that relationship, she knows he is just kidding around. "There are some women I would not go as far with, he said.

Sergeant Welsh said sexual harassment goes beyond "normal horseplay," and like rape, is motivated by power and degradation.

Although most officers were willing to share their opinions about sexual harassment, many were afraid to talk about problems in the department, fearing reprisals.

Most said they have never felt like they were sexually harassed. But even if they were, some said, it would be difficult to come forward.

"They can make your life miserable, ruin your career," one female officer said.

While offensive comments sometimes are directed toward her, another said, they are not enough to go "screaming sexual harassment.

"If you did that, you wouldn't have any friends out there," the officer said, noting she needs to depend on fellow officers to back her up on calls.

Another officer who wished to remain anonymous acknowledged she has had comments made to her, but said she "throws them back.

"Anybody who works here has got to expect that," she said. "If a man doesn't notice a woman, you have got to wonder what is wrong with him. You can't expect men to be squeaky clean all the time."

She is not alone in that opinion.

"When I came on the department, I knew that it was mostly men," said one female officer. "You just have to expect there are going to be offensive things said, and you have to go with the flow."

"In this job, you learn to accept it," another said. "Men are going to be men, and sometimes they forget that we are women. We are the ones who took this job."

Most officers, male and female, agreed that a woman who thinks she has a problem shouldn't keep it to herself.

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