State police superintendent's message against sexual harassment is loud, clear Major's firing puts action behind videotaped policy

July 31, 1996|By Kris Antonelli and John Rivera | Kris Antonelli and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Six months into his tenure as Maryland State Police superintendent, David B. Mitchell sent a videotaped message to his troopers that he would not tolerate sexual harassment.

On Monday, Mitchell proved that his talk was not just idle chatter when he fired Maj. Edward E. "Earl" Dennis Jr., 44, the highest ranking state police supervisor to be accused of such practices.

"My vision was made really clear in that videotape," Mitchell said yesterday. "Sexual harassment will simply not be tolerated. It's fair to alert your employees about how you feel about certain issues and what they can expect from you."

Dennis, a 22-year veteran, was accused of kissing female co-workers against their will and exposing himself to a female trooper in his office.

An internal investigation substantiated the allegations, and a three-member state police disciplinary board recommended to Mitchell that Dennis be demoted.

The case was a key test of new sexual harassment guidelines at the department that Mitchell has implemented.

Mitchell -- who had been the police chief in Prince George's County -- took over the 1,540-member state police force last year after three troopers filed suits in federal court claiming it had violated laws protecting employees from harassment. For years, female troopers had complained that harassment was widespread and that little action was taken to prevent it and punish offenders.

Trooper Yolanda D. Stockton's casual conversation with a fellow trooper about how Dennis was treating her eventually sparked the investigation in which others came forward. She said yesterday that Dennis' firing would not have happened before Mitchell became superintendent.

"No. Never. I stand strong behind that," she said. "In the past, there's been a long history of good old boys nothing would have happened."

Mitchell's message appears to be getting received loud and clear by the rank and file. "The colonel has developed a no-tolerance policy, and that is the message everyone is getting around here," said Lt. Roger E. Thibaudeau of the agency's Security Annex in Woodlawn. "He is showing his policy and this is the first chance to my knowledge that he has been able to do it."

Anyone with "any sense" should know now that Mitchell means what he says, said one trooper who asked not to be identified.

"Some of us are shocked that someone with that much rank was fired," the trooper said. "But they are also surprised that the colonel stuck to his word. I can't say that since the colonel has come here the problem has gone away, but he has done what he said he was going to do."

Sherry Bosley, a one-time Trooper of Year and a gambling expert for the agency who filed a sexual harassment suit two years ago against the state police, said she had mixed feelings when she heard about Dennis' firing. Her case was settled out of court and she retired from the force with a job-related disability pension.

"It seems way too late for me. Yesterday was very difficult for me," she said. "Some of the things that happened to me were worse. And those people were allowed to just retire. I hope that what this means is that the few people who have done that in the past won't be able to hide anymore, that they're not going to be protected. I hope that for Colonel Mitchell, this is sincere."

Kathleen Cahill, an attorney representing two of the female troopers who were victims of Dennis' harassment, said several forces came together to change attitudes on sexual harassment in the Maryland State Police.

"Mitchell is a part of the difference," she said.

But she also cited the Justice Department's continuing investigation of possible civil rights violations against female troopers related to sexual harassment, the pressure brought to bear by the state legislature during Mitchell's confirmation hearings, and a series of articles in The Sun dealing with harassment in the state police.

"I think it's a confluence of events that caused such a difference in treatment of this very serious issue," Cahill said. "He is the first guy who got caught in a new machine."

Dennis was the first person Mitchell has fired for sexual harassment, the superintendent said. As chief in Prince George's between 1990 and 1994, no case of sexual harassment had been brought to a hearing board whose findings would have required Mitchell's review.

When Mitchell took over the state police, he said, there were complaints such as Bosley's suit, but sexual harassment was not a runaway problem.

"But clearly, we have had issues with sexual harassment," he said yesterday. "There was a need for training and policy development. There was a perception that there was a problem with it, and perception is reality some of the time."

Last year, Mitchell brought in a consultant who helped develop new reporting procedures that provide troopers with an informal way to settle harassment complaints.

He said he made the three-minute videotape because of the need to convey his feelings quickly to all members of the department, who are spread out in barracks across the state. Troopers also are required to take a two-day course in "diversity training" that addresses not only gender but race issues.

Mitchell's policy is based on the recommendations of an advisory committee formed by his predecessor, Larry W. Tolliver, who took the action after The Sun published detailed reports about sexual harassment in the agency.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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