Woman's suit claims bias on police force

Officer says colleagues violated her civil rights

Defendants deny allegations

`Locker room' charges similar to earlier case

Howard County

December 22, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A female Howard County police officer is charging in a federal lawsuit that a male "locker room"-dominated culture is tolerated by county police, replete with pornography displayed on work computers, sexual insults and harassment for women who complain.

The civil rights discrimination suit, filed in October in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by 15-year Officer Susan Ensko, names as defendants Howard County, Police Chief Wayne Livesay, Sgt. Paul Steppe and Officer Perry Sauers.

The suit is similar to one filed by retired Cpl. Linda Freeman that led to a $115,000 settlement payment last spring. Ensko is seeking $500,000 in damages and an injunction ordering a halt to the behavior.

Ensko filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October 2003 and received a notice of right to sue July 30. Only after the EEOC filing did the department act to file administrative charges against Steppe and Sauers, her suit claims.

Both men and Ensko remain on active duty.

Lawyers representing the county, Livesay and the officers asked Friday that the suit be dismissed on grounds that it is based on "isolated, stale co-worker comments," that Livesay never harassed anyone and that some accusations are vague on timing.

Harriet E. Cooperman, lawyer for the two police officers, said, "I don't think she has a claim against my two clients. Her suit is vague, ambiguous. My clients deny all allegations. I think it should be thrown out."

Ensko has held various positions within the department, including in the narcotics division and on the auto-theft squad, and she served as a community liaison in North Laurel. She has received consistently good performance reviews, the suit said.

Testified for colleague

Ensko, who said she testified in support of Freeman's complaints during a departmental internal affairs investigation, said her efforts to escape the treatment by two male officers resulted in even more pressure and ostracism for her, including work assignments with the people she had complained about.

Ensko, according to the county's formal reply, "specifically disclaimed firsthand knowledge" of pornography on county computers. The two sides are exchanging motions, and no hearing is scheduled.

Virginia W. Barnhart, the former Baltimore County attorney, who is representing Ensko, and Carol Saffran Brinks, a senior assistant Howard County solicitor, refused to comment yesterday.

Freeman's suit made virtually the same accusations and was dismissed after a settlement was reached exactly one year ago. The $115,000 payment came in April.

In Freeman's case, the county confirmed some of the complaints through an internal affairs investigation launched in 2001.

They included charges that a supervisor showed pictures "of a pornographic nature" to other officers and that he "promoted and encouraged" fellow officers to attend "bull roasts" that featured strippers.

Harassment claims

Ensko said in her lawsuit that she was harassed as a "snitch" for testifying in the internal investigation of Freeman's complaints.

She also alleges harassment by Sauers, and later, in 2003, by Steppe, and says that Livesay failed to stop the behavior.

The discriminatory comments, Ensko said in the suit, involved "her own and other officers' sexual conduct, her ap- pearance, the female anatomy of women, the unfitness of women to serve as police officers, the presumed homosexuality of female officers, and prostitution," among other things.

Sauers "frequently made sexually derogatory and discriminatory comments to Ensko," the suit alleges. After complaining to supervisors and seeking a transfer, Ensko said, she was "re-assigned to work with the same officer she had complained about."

The "bull roasts" were "degrading" to female officers even though they were held outside work, Ensko said, because of on-duty jokes about what went on, including reports of prostitutes "raffled" off during the parties.

The sergeant later assigned to investigate her complaints, Ensko said, was the same sergeant who helped organize the bull roasts. In 2003, Ensko said, she was assigned to work with Steppe, who suggested that she and another female officer shower together, referred to other female officers as gay, and mocked arrested people who were African-American or disabled.

Steppe later confronted Ensko, she said, and told her that "she was the reason some men turn gay." She complained to Livesay on Oct. 1, 2003, but she said the chief dismissed her fears about being ostracized and being called a snitch.

In seeking the suit's dismissal, attorneys for the county and the officers said Ensko's knowledge of the bull roasts came from Freeman and was not firsthand.

The motion for dismissal of charges against Livesay said Ensko's claims are "legally deficient" because the county is the employer, not the chief, who is not liable. In addition, Livesay was not personally involved in any alleged violation of Ensko's rights, his lawyer claimed.

In addition, she failed to show any "custom or usage of intentional discrimination" by the county based on gender, the county motions said.

And her complaints of a hostile work environment were called "wholly lacking in specificity."

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