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Sheriff's Dept. in Belated Effort to End Gender Bias

Law: Under Baca, the focus moves from fighting lawsuit to hiring more women and stopping harassment on job.

October 16, 2000|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which quietly has spent nearly $19 million over the last decade responding to a single sexual discrimination lawsuit, now is making its first serious attempt not only to hire and promote women, but also to fight sexual harassment within its ranks.

The department, which lost the lawsuit, for years made scant effort to comply with court orders on such issues. Instead, the department chose to contest rather than compromise at nearly every juncture--while costs rose significantly, according to interviews, court records and department documents.

As a consequence of its resistance, the department, which unsuccessfully appealed the 1980 case to the state Supreme Court, now operates under a negotiated settlement--a consent decree--along with a set of judgments and orders so complicated that they fill a binder 4 inches thick. Despite having passed an exam for a promotion and being placed on the list of eligible candidates for sergeant, the female deputy who filed the discrimination lawsuit was never promoted.

The sheriff's case can be viewed as a cautionary local example for the Los Angeles Police Department, which faces a much wider-ranging consent decree to forestall a civil rights suit by the U.S. Department of Justice: Costs can skyrocket while department policies and practices can stall if the department digs in its heels.

"Some will say an LAPD consent decree will be great. It will force the department to do this or that," said Dennis M. Harley, the plaintiff's attorney in the sheriff's case. "But the devil is in the details and the devil is in the enforcement and the monitoring. This [the Sheriff's Department consent decree] has been a failure."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called the costs and lack of progress in the sheriff's case obscene.

"It's an absolute embarrassment," Yaroslavsky said. "The bottom line in all of this is, you had a largely sexist world of law enforcement. The changes that were called for in the case were resisted by the law enforcement establishment."

But the Sheriff's Department dealing with the case today is different from the one that fought it for most of the last decade. During much of that time, the department was run by Sherman Block, who fiercely resisted most of the changes required by the court. Block, who died two years ago during his reelection campaign, was said to be so angry about the case that he forbade the plaintiff's name to be mentioned in his presence.

Acceptable Promotion Test Still Lacking

When Sheriff Lee Baca was elected to succeed Block, he knew he had a serious problem with the consent decree. He had no idea, however, nor did the county Board of Supervisors, how large and unwieldy the problem had become:

* The department, its lawyers and consultants have yet to develop an acceptable promotion test--one that does not discriminate against any group--for deputies who want to become sergeants. In fact, the department has given only two promotion exams in 14 years, relying on years-old lists of eligible candidates and attempting to meet a court order requiring that 25% of the promotions go to women, who make up less than 15% of the department.

* The department transferred only a small number of women to specialized positions, such as detectives, field training and narcotics officers, despite a court order requiring that women hold 25% of those jobs. Department officials still say that "most women" prefer working in the courts or the jails, where more regular work schedules can better accommodate families and other concerns.

* Despite the consent decree, the department still does not have a policy outlining its stand against sexual harassment or its procedures for dealing with it. A new policy, dubbed the policy of equality, however, is being "fine-tuned," the department's lawyers say, and should be completed within the next few months.

Over the years, lawyers--their expensive expert witnesses in tow--have returned repeatedly to court, arguing over the various orders. The department has been threatened by the court with daily fines of as much as $10,000 for failing to comply with some of those orders.

A cost breakdown of the case shows that the bulk of the $18.9 million went to attorneys and consultants retained by the county. Richard Biddle, the independent monitor appointed to oversee the case, received about $7.8 million; Harley, the class counsel, received about $6.8 million but used a portion of it to pay his own hired experts. Susan Bouman Paolino, the former deputy who filed the case, received roughly $200,000.

Biddle, among many others inside and outside the department, cringes at the costs.

"They've been spending 100 times more than they should to try to get these things done," Biddle said. "If they had worked together in 1989, they could be out from under this thing. If you fight everything, it runs up the costs and makes us have to do things over again. It just hasn't been a work-together atmosphere."

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