The High Cost of Bias 

Gender gap persists at Sheriff’s Department

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998
Photo by Davis Barber

Sheriff’s Deputy Carmen Higuchi leaves her patrol car to investigate a call. When she returns, she finds a dildo on the car. Male colleagues laugh nearby as they watch her reaction.

Sheriff’s Deputy Kathy Tinker opens her mailbox and finds white lace panties stuffed inside. Supervisors tell her to accept such conduct as part of the life of a deputy.

Sheriff’s Training Officer Pamela Lee-Carey finds in her patrol car’s glove compartment a Polaroid of a man masturbating. She doesn’t make a formal complaint, because she is scared it might prevent her from graduating.

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Experiences like Higuchi’s, Tinker’s and Lee-Carey’s, which caused each to abandon her hard-earned career in law enforcement, follow a long-established pattern of harassment and dead-end assignments for the women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. All that was supposed to have changed following a tough critique by the independent Kolts Commission in 1992, and the department’s vow the following year, in settling a class-action lawsuit, to reform its dismal record.

By several measures, it hasn’t. Over the past few years, at least 10 female deputies have filed sexual-harassment lawsuits against the department. Even more have filed complaints with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. And, according to public records, taxpayers have paid millions of dollars in settlements, attorneys’ fees and court costs as a result. Just this year, former Deputy Tinker obtained a $350,000 settlement, former Detective Higuchi received a $200,000 settlement, and former Deputy Jamila Bayati, whose case was thrown out, has seen her claim reinstated on appeal. Her demand is $500,000, according to her attorney, Steven J. Rottman.

In addition, a federal judge has imposed sanctions fining the department more than $10,000 a day for failure to implement adequate reforms. Those fines have not been collected, and department officials contend that they are acting in good faith. Opposing attorneys are skeptical, however.

"We know from the Sheriff’s Department’s own documents and other outside sources that sexual harassment of female deputies is a widespread and pervasive problem in the department," said Rottman, a Los Angeles employment lawyer who has represented four female deputies and two female sergeants in lawsuits against the county.

"The number of claims is dramatically underreported," he added, "because so many female deputies rightfully fear they will be retaliated against if they complain."

Jenifer McKenna, who founded the California Women’s Law Center and studied the Sheriff’s Department in her capacity as a consultant to the Los Angeles Police Commission, agreed.

"There’s a system and a hierarchy and a culture that has not made this a priority" in the Sheriff’s Department, she said. "Over and over again the department has failed to implement the recommendations that the Kolts Commission made in this area while it did follow recommendations made in other areas, like the use of force."

Sexual-harassment and equity issues at the Sheriff’s Department came under court supervision in July 1988, when the county settled a lawsuit brought by Susan Bouman, a veteran deputy who was denied a promotion to sergeant. Amended for a third time in 1993, the Bouman consent decree mandated that the department spend $4.5 million to develop a revised sexual-harassment policy, create a Career Resources Center to help women achieve promotions, establish an ombudsperson and implement gender-diversity training, among other provisions.

But fixing the decades-old problem has proved as challenging as teaching old sexist dogs new tricks. Despite the specific reforms ordered in the Bouman decree, District Judge Robert Takasugi held in August 1997 that "it is the finding of this court that the county has not eliminated gender bias" and that "little or nothing has been done to correct the improper procedures" in deputy hiring and promotions. Those findings led to the sanctions of $10,000 per day and the admonition "Defendants are warned ‘for the last time’ that they are to comply fully and completely with all the previous orders of this court." Takasugi has issued no subsequent rulings in the case.

Officials at the Sheriff’s Department insist they have a "zero tolerance" sexual-harassment policy. "There’s been a heightened awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment and gender discrimination," said Chief Robert Spierer, head of the department’s Professional Standards and Training Division. "We’re starting to see a significant drop in the number of claims because of the department’s position" on sexual harassment.

Spierer, citing ongoing litigation, would not reveal the percentage decrease in complaints. But one lawyer who receives quarterly reports from Spierer’s department said the complaints have remained steady, with the average being about a dozen every three months.

Another key dispute between Sheriff’s officials and their critics concerns the Ombudsperson/Career Resources Center (OCRC), a new post required by the consent decree. Instead of going to their supervisor or to the Internal Affairs Bureau, deputies now can lodge complaints with the ombudsperson.

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