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The high cost of discrimination

Police agencies are paying the piper, in sums that reach into the millions, for acts of discrimination and harassment against women and minority officers. In a number of cases, municipalities settled with plaintiffs or were forced to defend themselves in court by judges who refused to dismiss discrimination charges leveled against police departments that included some of the largest in the country.

Moreover, police agencies continue to be put on the defensive about promotion and hiring policies deemed unfair  and, in some instances, have been forced to come up with new plans.

Vindication was achieved by a number of female and minority officers who charged discrimination:

Former Los Angeles police officer Nina Damianakes was awarded $2.3 million on April 25 after a Superior Court jury agreed with her claim that she had been harassed by the department so ruthlessly when she joined its SWAT team that she could no longer work for either the unit or the agency.

A Federal jury in Pompano Beach, Fla., awarded Sgt. Diane Brown $100,400 in April after finding that acting Police Chief Larry DeFuria called her racial slurs. Brown claimed that top officials retaliated against her when she complained about racial and sexual discrimination in the department.

At least seven discrimination suits were filed statewide in New Jersey after Newark police Sgt. Donna Hurley was awarded $1.2 million in a Federal suit in 1996.

The Canton, Miss., Police Department was sued in October by the U.S. Justice Department to force the agency to promote Lieut. Vickie McNeill to assistant police chief with back pay and compensatory damages. The suit charges that McNeill was passed over because she is female, even though she ranked as the most qualified.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination said in September that it found overwhelming evidence to uphold a $250,000 settlement of former Southborough police dispatcher Katherine Baldelli’s sexual harassment claim.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agreed in July to pay $5.9 million in damages and legal fees to black agents who filed a lawsuit in 1990 claiming that they were assigned to lower-ranking jobs than whites and paid less. The ATF agreed to overhaul its hiring, recruiting and promotion methods as part of the settlement.

 

The New York City Police Department was faced last year with two sexual harassment lawsuits. The first, filed by the U.S. Justice Department in June, marked the only time the Federal agency has ever charged the NYPD with discrimination. Former officer Sheryll Goff was allegedly subjected to years of abuse by male peers. Her attorney said the suit was filed only after trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with the department. The 31-year-old officer had been assigned from 1989 to 1992 to the 110th Precinct in Queens. During that time, Goff said, she endured sexual explicit comments, centerfolds tacked to her locker, and pornographic movies in the station’s lounge.

The NYPD’s top uniformed official, Chief of Department Louis Anemone, was named in the other suit, originally filed in 1993. Sgt. Marissa Wise claims that Anemone, then commanding officer of the 34th Precinct, told her that she would suffer professionally if she filed charges against officers who subjected her to abuse similar to that described in Goff’s suit. When Wise filed a complaint with the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity office, Anemone allegedly shouted at her, “Who do you think you are, going down to the EEO?” In July, a Manhattan judge refused to dismiss Wise’s lawsuit.

Another big-city department, the Metropolitan Police in Washington, D.C., faced the loss of  $9 million in Federal grants after a Justice Department investigation concurred in April with Latino officers’ charges of discrimination and civil rights abuses. Dozens of officers belonging to the Hispanic Police Association filed a suit in 1993 claiming the department routinely denied promotions to Latino officers, forbade them to speak Spanish on the job, and meted out unduly harsh punishment on some of the 150 Latino officers on the 3,600-member force.

The department’s brass was also forced to defend a promotional test-scoring practice which gives passing grades to officers who correctly answer fewer than half of the questions on the written exam. Under the current system, the written exam, which has no standard passing grade, is combined with another exam that evaluates performance skills.

In April, the agency planned to allow 185 of the top scorers on the written exam to advance, but police officials had to advance 207 candidates because of a diversity requirement. This made the lowest passing score 46 and the highest 81 among the 965 test-takers. Officials defended passing the low-scorers, claiming that knowledge of the street is as important as book smarts.

In Chicago, twin task forces are examining police and fire promotions policies in hopes of recommending new procedures that would end perennial disputes over advancement to the departments’ higher ranks. The task forces, named in April by Mayor Richard M. Daley, are but the newest initiative attempted by the city to avoid confrontation. In 1993, the city hired outside consultants to devise a new exam. But the following year, test scores showed that only five of the top 114 scorers were minorities. On the lieutenants’ exam, 51 of the top scorers were white, and only three were black.

While Daley has not set a deadline for the Police Promotion Task Force, he said it is vitally important that the city be prepared for a new round of promotional testing within the next eight to 12 months.

In August, the city struck a deal with the local Fraternal Order of Police to avoid a police protest during the Democratic National Convention. As part of the agreement, which included a 14-percent pay hike over four years, the city accepted the union’s exclusion of an affirmative action clause. The city lobbied for an additional 5 percent of promotions to be set aside for minorities, but the union refused.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]