Officials settle police lawsuit

Woman officer says `locker-room culture' led to sexual harassment

She first complained in 2000

Agreement prompts the dismissal of her civil rights action

Howard County

December 19, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg and Gus G. Sentementes | Lisa Goldberg and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials have settled a lawsuit filed by a woman police officer who said a "locker-room atmosphere" in the Police Department cultivated the sexual harassment she suffered from her supervisor and that police commanders retaliated against her when she complained.

The settlement between the county and Cpl. Linda Freeman led to the dismissal of the officer's civil rights action in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this fall, but neither side would disclose the terms this week.

"The parties have agreed it will be confidential, and we will comply with our agreement," said Richard Basehoar, the senior assistant county solicitor who handled the case for Howard County. "We've made a commitment, and we will stand by the commitment."

Freeman's lawyer, Mark M. Dumler of Parker, Dumler and Kiely in Baltimore, said he was "pleased that the parties were able to reach a mutually agreeable, confidential settlement." Reached at home last night, Freeman's husband referred all comment to Dumler.

The lawsuit, which was filed against the county in March and sought $500,000 in damages, alleged a series of actions that Freeman termed "sexual harassment" and police officials called "improper conduct" by the officer's sergeant, a 20-year veteran who retired in December last year at the rank of corporal, according to court papers and officials.

The Sun is not naming the supervisor because he could not be reached for comment and was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Freeman, who joined the Police Department in 1984 and had received awards for her service, is "no longer employed" at the department, a police spokeswoman said. Lawyers declined to give additional information about her status.

Some of Freeman's allegations are supported by police officials and lawyers who say in affidavits and other court documents that an internal affairs investigation conducted after she complained to Chief Wayne Livesay in January 2001 turned up evidence of impropriety and "prohibited conduct" by the supervisor.

Among the allegations confirmed by the county are that Freeman's supervisor showed pictures "of a pornographic nature" to other officers and that he "promoted and encouraged" fellow officers to attend "bull roasts," which featured strippers, according to court papers.

The county did not admit other allegations made by Freeman - that starting Jan. 1, 1999, the sergeant made sexually derogatory comments about her and other female police officers, told sexually explicit stories while at the police station and excluded female officers from police squad social events by scheduling them in strip clubs.

The supervisor was just a part - "the extreme" - of what Freeman termed a "locker-room culture" in a "sexually hostile workplace" that protects officers like the supervisor, according to court papers filed by Freeman.

When she first complained to a lieutenant in August 2000, supervisors did nothing, so she went directly to Livesay in January 2001, according to her lawsuit.

After her complaint, she said, she was transferred to a less "desirable" patrol area over her objections. She was also denied a promotion to sergeant and a transfer to a detective slot, she said in court papers.

In affidavits and other court papers, the county and police officials rebutted Freeman's claims of retaliation, saying she was transferred to another assignment at her request and was not promoted because she ranked lower than other candidates on a sergeant's test and did not "distinguish herself in her interview."

Freeman's initial complaint was that the supervisor had a Playboy magazine in his car, according to an affidavit filed by Capt. Sandra Regler. Regler, then a lieutenant, said she had a general discussion with the three sergeants under her command about "inappropriate materials" in patrol cars.

In court papers, the county said the lawsuit was without merit.

Freeman did not take advantage of all administrative options available to her; and the county, which has a workplace harassment policy and has held seminars on the issue, has taken steps to prevent and "promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior," according to court papers.

But Freeman, who alleged that some of her supervisor's actions were "public knowledge" before she complained, called the county's harassment policy "deficient" in court papers.

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