Sex and the state police

October 17, 1994

It's very simple. Maryland State Police officers are sworn to uphold the law. Sexual harassment is against the law. A state trooper who violates any law is unfit to wear the uniform. And supervisors who fail to enforce the law on their own subordinates are equally unfit to serve as police officers.

Somehow it isn't as simple as it should be at state police headquarters in Pikesville. Faced with nine formal complaints of sexual harassment in the past five years, three discrimination lawsuits filed this year in federal court and the resignation of a psychologist who complained repeatedly about male troopers tormenting women troopers, Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver did nothing. But once the complaints of women troopers were disclosed by Evening Sun reporters Scott Higham and Marcia Myers, all of a sudden Colonel Tolliver is galvanized. Too late, and arguably too little.

After dozens of interviews with male and female troopers, reporters Higham and Myers disclosed a pattern of subjecting ++ women troopers to verbal and physical abuse. Most of it was unwanted sexual advances, obscene behavior and lewd remarks, though some incidents verged on sexual assault. Two facts stood out in their account: No one ever got punished, and the harassment occurred only in particular units. Whatever the problem in the ranks, that points to serious command failures.

Many women troopers feared to complain to their superiors, often because they had seen similar cases end with the female suffering retaliation and her tormentor going unpunished. In the seven formal harassment cases that have been resolved, no one has yet been punished. It's no coincidence there has been no woman officer on the trial boards, nor has a women trooper investigated any of the complaints. With 119 women on the force -- 45 of them supervisors -- that's inexcusable.

The fact that women can serve as fellow professionals with male colleagues in a number of state police units without being harassed because of their gender indicates that the problem is not endemic in the department. It exists only where it is tolerated by supervisors, or, worse, where the supervisors themselves are the tormentors. Competent senior commanders should have spotted those problems long ago.

This sorry record leaves little ground for confidence that Colonel Tolliver's new procedures for complaints or an advisory committee of women troopers will help much. Serious retraining on the nature of sexual harassment for all troopers would be one step in the right direction. But nothing will get the message out as effectively as severely punishing the next offender -- and any supervisors who condoned such behavior.

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