Trooper reforms will fall short, experts believe

October 13, 1994|By Scott Higham and Marcia Myers | Scott Higham and Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writers

Analysts who study the issue of sexual harassment at police agencies yesterday characterized the reforms announced this week by the Maryland State Police as cosmetic changes unlikely to produce meaningful change.

Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver, in response to a string of sexual harassment reports, announced new regulations allowing female troopers and others to complain directly to him. He also selected seven women from the force for a Special Advisory Committee created to address the issue and said all future allegations will be reviewed by a female investigator in the agency's Internal Affairs unit.

"The changes will enhance existing policy and ensure that employees have every opportunity to report any incident of harassment," Mr. Tolliver said in announcing the steps.

The reforms come in response to articles in Sunday's editions of The Sun that detailed reports of sexual harassment at the state police.

Based on court records, agency files and interviews with dozens of state police troopers and administrators, The Sun reported that harassment problems are widespread within the agency.

According to experts, the new steps are far short of those other police agencies have taken to address sexual harassment.

Although some internal remedies can be helpful, correcting the problems requires outside consultants and outside training, say two women who were instrumental in drafting similar changes last year for the Los Angeles police department.

"If they understood the problem on the inside and were able to articulate it, they would have handled it by now and this wouldn't be happening," said Penny Harrington, a police officer of 23 years who became the country's first female police chief in 1985 with her promotion at the Portland, Ore., police department.

"Why would women in this atmosphere miraculously feel that the open door means they should not fear retaliation -- it doesn't make sense," said Katherine Spillar, national coordinator of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Both say that the involvement of knowledgeable outsiders who are not vulnerable to retaliation from department higher-ups is critical.

Ms. Harrington said she tried many remedies in Portland, but it took bringing in experts with an understanding of sexual harassment and why it occurs to significantly curtail the problem.

Those trying to resolve the problem must be equipped with proper training, and adequate staffing and resources, she said.

The woman appointed to head the new committee for Maryland's state police is Capt. Cynthia R. Smith, a 13-year veteran of the force. Yesterday, she said the group was committed to reviewing and strengthening the agency's sexual harassment policy, if necessary, but said she is not sure there is a serious problem.

In her career, she said, she has not once encountered an incident of sexual harassment and has never heard a colleague describe having such a problem. "I don't want to say we don't have a problem, but I'm not in a position to say we have as serious a problem as was reflected in the [newspaper] reports," Captain Smith said.

"I think the formation of the committee simply re-emphasizes the superintendent's strong stance against any type of harassment." Asked whether she or any of the committee members had received outside training in dealing with sexual harassment issues, she said she had not and was not aware that any of her committee members had either. She said the group intends to look into getting outside training.

Ms. Spillar called her comments "worrisome."

"You have to be sure that those appointed to an internal task force are not just apologists for the way things are," she said. "Every study and survey of a police agency that exists shows massive and widespread sexual harassment. If someone who has been on the force in that length of time hasn't seen it, they've closed their eyes to it."

Ms. Harrington, who has since left Portland to become the assistant director of investigations with the California State Bar Association, agreed.

"What I found in dealing with my own police department is that women adopt different ways of coping with what happens to them. Some deny it happens. Some call it something else: 'Just the boys kidding around, just police humor,' " she said.

Kathleen Cahill, an attorney who represents three troopers in federal sexual harassment suits now pending against the Maryland agency, said that channeling complaints to the Internal Affairs unit is no guarantee of improvement.

One trooper told The Sun that when she tried to file a complaint with the Internal Affairs unit she was discouraged from doing so. The trooper was told she would face a "rape-like" trial with the toughest of questioning, if she pursued the complaint.

"Why would Internal Affairs suddenly have the independence, sensitivity and know-how to investigate these complaints when they have not demonstrated it in the past?" Ms. Cahill asked.

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