Gender and the state police

June 05, 1995

Settlement of a law suit charging sexual harassment against the Maryland State Police closes a chapter, but not yet the whole episode, in the agency's treatment of women troopers.

As is common in settlements of civil suits like this one, the state denies it was wrong even while committing itself to substantial payments in damages. But the nature of the agreement, together with information that has come to light as a result of the law suits, makes it clear that the agency has had a gender discrimination problem. Now the question is whether the lesson has been learned.

For some reason the state police seem to have been more macho, in the worst senses of that term, than most law enforcement agencies in this area are these days. Though there have been no charges of physical mistreatment, a veteran sergeant and former "Trooper of the Year" and another woman trooper made persuasive cases of verbal harassment. A male sergeant who complained about crude language by a superior regarding his colleague was subjected to retaliation. Significantly, he rejected a monetary settlement and accepted only payment of his legal expenses.

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun last fall disclosed a pattern of sexual harassment and failure by commanders to do much about it. Some of the women reported conduct that went beyond the simply disgusting. In those rare instances when a male trooper was found responsible, the punishment was light. Not all troopers, or all units, were hostile to women troopers. But the problem was widespread enough that a department doctor treated 20 troopers for psychological problems arising from harassment. He resigned in disgust when his complaints to commanders went unheeded.

All three troopers who won the court settlements hope their actions will signal to the neanderthals still on the force that this type of conduct is illegal and won't be condoned. There is evidence the message is already getting through. Col. David B. Mitchell, the new superintendent, has a reputation for not tolerating misbehavior in the ranks. As chief of a troubled Prince Georges County police force, he instituted reforms which have gone a long way to improve that agency's reputation. He has already taken some steps to combat sexual harassment in the state police.

Now it is up to Colonel Mitchell -- and, if necessary, Gov. Parris Glendening -- to make sure the lesson of the harassment suits reaches every unit, trooper and commander. If new complaints are substantiated, only severe punishment will make the message clear. Sexual harassment is against the law and is unacceptable behavior by law enforcement officers.

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