Suits bring big awards against police FEMALE TROOPERS AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT

October 09, 1994|By Scott Higham and Marcia Myers | Scott Higham and Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writers

As more women join law enforcement agencies and court decisions expand the reach of sexual harassment laws, police departments are becoming targets for big-ticket lawsuits.

Some recent examples:

* The FBI paid $350,000 to a pair of female agents after they sued, complaining that their boss had fondled them.

* The city of Philadelphia paid a female sergeant $750,000 after she sued, complaining that her boss made unwanted sexual advances.

* A jury in Long Beach, Calif., awarded $3.1 million to a pair of female officers after they said they were sexually harassed and threatened and beaten for complaining.

Even though it has been decades since most police departments around the country accepted their first female recruits, sexual harassment continues to be one of the biggest on-the-job problems, law enforcement experts say.

While the culture in many squad rooms remains the same, the atmosphere in courtrooms has changed in costly ways for police departments. New court rulings and a growing sentiment among juries that police officers should be held strictly accountable for their actions have resulted in a string of expensive settlements and verdicts.

"The general public holds us to a higher standard," said Laurie Smilski, who teaches sexual harassment courses for U.S. agents at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. "We investigate laws. We are supposed to uphold those laws."

In the past few years, sexual harassment laws have changed dramatically. A recent court ruling held that a "hostile" work environment provides grounds to sue. Another found that jokes and innuendoes can be interpreted as harassment. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a plaintiff needn't prove psychological injury to win damages.

With more women working at police agencies -- they represent about 10 percent of the total force nationwide -- female officers have become more emboldened to file complaints.

"They finally realize that just doing the job and doing it well is not going to make it stop," said Dr. Nancy Baker, a psychologist who worked for the Los Angeles sheriff's office for six years. "That's often when it becomes something they're willing to speak up about, because there's clearly nothing they can do."

From department to department, the complaints are similar -- abusive treatment, sexual rumors, unwanted advances and retribution for those who report harassment.

"The only thing that varies much is whether management tolerates it or resists it," says Susan E. Martin, a former Washington, D.C., police officer who has written two books on women in policing. "I think some of the increase in lawsuits is people being emboldened to just say no. Years ago, women thought it was just the cost of being a cop."

The medical bills and costs for lost productivity are huge. One study by Working Woman magazine estimated that sexual harassment-related problems cost a typical Fortune 500 firm $6.7 million a year, mainly in expenses such as medical bills and lost productivity.

So many suits have been filed, generating so much publicity in recent years, that police departments no longer can claim ignorance of the law, said Stephen Bunting, executive director of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers. The key, he said, is changing the culture of male-dominated departments.

"If you're in a position of authority, you have to be ultra-sensitive .. to any kind of gender bias, jokes, unwanted or offensive remarks," Mr. Bunting said. "For some people it's obvious. For other people who have grown up in a different era, those things are hard to change."

HARASSMENT DEFINED

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature when:

* Submission to such conduct is made explicitly or implicitly as a term or condition of employment.

* Submission to, or rejection of such conduct, is used as a basis for an employment decision.

* And such conduct interferes with an individual's work performance or creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.

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