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Sex Harassment Hard to Root Out in Sheriff's Dept.

April 18, 1999|TINA DAUNT and ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

She was a respected, happily married Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy assigned to the jail.

He was her boss. He made advances. She resisted. He tried to get physical, then got hostile. He said he could make her life hell. He licked his lips when she walked by. He called her a "dumb female" in front of the rapists and murderers she guarded and told inmates "us men have to stick together." Prisoners began threatening to sexually assault her. "The brass is on our side," they taunted. Department helicopters buzzed her house.

It was like some creepy Alfred Hitchcock flick. And according to the scenario she described in court records and retirement files, it derailed her career and life.

Her marriage to a fellow deputy crumbled. Her boss--who denies the allegations--was transferred to a station near her home. She left the state. In 1996, the county paid her $750,000 to avoid a jury award its lawyers feared would exceed $3 million.

While attempts to integrate overwhelmingly male police forces have produced examples of fine teamwork between men and women, agencies like the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have spawned stories of horrific discrimination, from sexual harassment to male deputies ignoring calls for backup from female deputies in danger. Women who complain say they are railroaded out of their jobs by co-workers while their alleged abusers remain--and sometimes harass other women.

Sheriff Lee Baca, who some lawsuits allege did not deal strongly enough with such behavior in the past, now says his department will have zero tolerance for harassment and respond promptly to resolve complaints. To combat the problem, Baca said he has issued a new set of departmental values that forbid such conduct.

"We want to make sure our supervisors are vigilant in detecting early signs of inappropriate behavior," he said.

Los Angeles County taxpayers have paid more than $2.6 million since mid-1995 in gender-related claims and lawsuits. Last year, the Sheriff's Department paid $661,000 to settle such suits, which amounted to 40% of the county's $1.7 million sexual harassment bill in 1998.

That sum dwarfed the $51,000 the county Fire Department paid for such cases and far outstripped the $450,000 payout by its public works department, the next biggest spot for sexual harassment complaints.

Experts say the Sheriff's Department has been so slow to comply with a federal order to correct the problem that it may be violating the federal Violence Against Women Act.

"The bottom line is they've done nothing," said attorney Dennis Harley, who has been involved in litigation against the department on sexual harassment issues since 1974.

Harley documented one 1998 case in which a supervisor suspected of criminal sexual battery against a female student worker stayed unpunished on the job, while the department "lost contact" with the woman.

Another sergeant who reportedly put his hands down the front of a female officer's pants in 1998 was allowed to stay on the job for a year, during which he dipped into pornographic files stored in the department's computer system and used them to harass other officers, Harley wrote in a report filed in federal court.

But if the department has been tolerant of such behavior, the courts increasingly are not. Juries are more sympathetic to women whose careers were wrecked and personal lives strained by sexual harassment--forcing the county to make big cash payouts to stave off even more expensive jury awards.

The stakes for ending such behavior will only grow, experts say, because gender integration of police forces, like the military, is on the rise.

Women 14% of Force

About 14% of the Sheriff's Department's deputies are women, ranking it 39th nationwide in the percentage of female officers on law enforcement forces, according to the National Center for Women and Policing. About 10% of them are in supervisory positions. Nationwide, Pittsburgh is the police force with the most women--25%--with females comprising 37.5% of the top command.

The Los Angeles Police Department, too, grapples with gender-equality issues--one notorious former clandestine departmental group called itself Men Against Women--and sexual harassment lawsuits. The city attorney's office says LAPD payout figures are not available.

Nationwide studies find that "discrimination and sexual harassment are pervasive in police departments and supervisors and commanders . . . are frequently perpetrators themselves," according to a 1997 report by the National Center for Women and Policing. "A large number of women across the country have been driven from their jobs in law enforcement due to unpunished, unchecked and unrelenting abuse."

In Los Angeles County, however, such abuse is drawing greater scrutiny.

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