225 Miles To Protest Sex Bias

Pa. Woman's 2-week Walk Ends Today At White House

July 20, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

In the two weeks since she left her Pennsylvania home for what will be a 225-mile walk to Washington, Debra Hartley has been heartened by the response she has received in trying to raise awareness about what she and others believe is widespread discrimination against women in law enforcement.

Hartley, 47, is hoping to meet with first lady Michelle Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. once she arrives at the gates of the White House today.

"We're not going to leave until they open the front door," Hartley said with a laugh Friday as she passed through Carroll, Montgomery and Howard counties before reaching the nation's capital on Sunday.

Hartley said the support she has experienced has crossed generational and gender lines. Drivers have beeped their horns as they pass Hartley and the van draped in American flags that has been driven alternately by her mother and three sons. Others have engaged in conversation, including a woman in her 80s who is a former naval officer.

"She was very encouraging," Hartley said as she took a break Friday, sitting in a convenience store at Georgia and New Hampshire avenues. "She faced such discrimination so many years ago."

It has been a nearly six-year battle that has cost Hartley about $30,000.

A five-year veteran of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department, Hartley left in September 2003 after filing complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. With approval from the Justice Department, Hartley later sued her former employer in trying to collect back wages and get her old job back. After a weeklong trial in October 2007, a jury of three women and five men returned a verdict in favor of the police department.

The idea for the walk came earlier this year after Hartley had paid a $9,000 fee to obtain the transcript of her federal court case. Her attorney, Ann Felker, had told Hartley that she should think of the money as a way of "bringing women in law enforcement one step closer to equality in the workplace."

"I began to think it isn't enough," said Hartley, who along with neighbor Barbara Wenninger has averaged about 15 miles a day while sleeping at campsites early in the trip and in low-budget hotels as she approached the nation's capital. "It's hard to sit back and watch this problem continue in our nation."

According to Marie DeSantis, director of the Women's Justice Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., the female population of police departments with more than 100 officers has dropped from 14 percent in 2001 to 12 percent. The organization has helped file lawsuits on behalf of at least a dozen female officers. In Hartley's case, her initial complaint was made because she felt that male officers in the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department received preferential treatment for their schedules, and that in some cases, she felt endangered by not receiving proper backup by her male counterparts. Her complaints to the now-retired chief were repeatedly ignored, she said.

The current chief, Harry Lewis, who headed up the department's criminal investigation unit when Hartley was on the force, said in a telephone interview Friday that the jury's verdict "shows the professionalism of the officers here. ... It was unfortunate that she would want to leave a job like this because I thought she was content."

Lewis said that Hartley's last position as the department's Drug Awareness Resistance Education program coordinator was considered a plum job in terms of regular hours. Hartley said Sunday that she was asked to work a lot more hours in the DARE program than her male predecessor.

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