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But because the center is based at the department’s Monterey Park headquarters, women may feel uncomfortable going to the office. In his June 1998 report, Merrick Bobb, an attorney charged with monitoring progress at both the Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, recommended that the Sheriff’s Department move the office.
"Even though staff from OCRC tell clients that they are willing to meet them anywhere and anytime to discuss their concerns, it is likely that some individuals are not reporting claims of sexual harassment or other discrimination to OCRC, because of a perception that OCRC is not neutral or that they will be spotted coming to OCRC," Bobb reported.
Gattis responded by saying that counselors meet deputies wherever they feel comfortable — in coffee shops, at parks or in deputies’ homes. "Because we provide a confidential path, retaliation is not a factor," he said, "but we monitor that very carefully."
"There are no current plans to move them," Chief Spierer said of the ombudsperson’s office. "We’ve talked about it, but they don’t have a lot of walk-in traffic."
In some cases, and despite the consent decree, the harassment escalates after a complaint is filed. Carmen Higuchi filed her sexual-harassment complaint with the ombudsperson in June 1995 and took a medical leave in August 1995. She returned to work a year later in the department’s Domestic Violence Unit.
At that time, a male deputy told her that he and some colleagues were told not to associate with her, because she was trouble; moreover, information about her sexual-harassment complaints leaked to victims of a domestic-violence case she was handling. The victims then refused to work with her.
Higuchi filed another complaint and went on disability leave.
To this date, the Sheriff’s Department has not closed its Higuchi file. "You have discipline coming years after the incident," said Carol Sobel, an attorney handling similar litigation against the LAPD. Sobel added that previous lawsuits dictate three months as a reasonable time frame. "It leaves the complainant feeling there’s no way around it. It becomes a real stress factor."
Chief Spierer admitted that the duration of investigations can be unreasonable.
"We have had some investigations that took too long, there’s no question about it," he said. With Higuchi, he added, "It was a close call, and [commanders] wanted to re-review all the documentation and listen to the tapes of the interviews."
After an investigation is complete, it goes before a review committee, then to the commander of the station where the incident occurred to recommend discipline, and then back to the committee.
Spierer said he wants to eliminate the station commander and leave the review committee to determine the appropriate discipline. Whether that would shave 21 months off an investigation, however, remains to be seen.
The LAPD has followed a similar path in reforming its men-only law-enforcement culture, and with apparently similar results.
Gender-equality and harassment issues there first came under the scrutiny of the Christopher Commission in 1991, which examined the entire department after the Rodney King beating. The commission cited numerous instances of sexist comments, touching and sexual assault, and called for sweeping reform.
Three years later, the LAPD was hit with a class-action lawsuit, Tipton-Whittingham vs. City of Los Angeles, which is still unresolved, according to Sobel, the attorney in that case. The 17 named plaintiffs who are claiming sexual harassment in that case have so far not received any monetary compensation, but Sobel said she expects a trial to begin soon.
And as recently as May, the city paid more than $750,000 to Virginia Acevedo, a female LAPD officer who also claimed sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
The city police department has a more thorough review process in place than the Sheriff. Prompted by such expensive litigation and pressure from Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, the city’s civilian Police Commission established a Discrimination Unit in June, in addition to an existing ombudsperson’s office. The special unit is responsible for helping the department train employees on discrimination issues, counseling employees who have been sexually harassed and monitoring complaints to ensure that proper discipline is handed down. It must also provide progress reports to the commission.
Sobel questions the effectiveness of the Discrimination Unit and the LAPD’s ombudsperson, but figures the two can’t hurt. "Civilian review boards are usually a good thing, because if they work right, they build confidence," she said. "It’s helpful for the public and the Police Department to have a democratic process."
The Sheriff’s Department has no such civilian oversight, however, and reform efforts have been generated primarily from Judge Takasugi’s courtroom. The result, according to plaintiff attorney Rottman, has been increased tension between men and women in the department.
"On the whole, the Bouman consent decree has increased the hostility toward women officers at the street level," Rottman said. He said he is about to file three more lawsuits on behalf of other female deputies against the Sheriff’s Department.
Handling of harassment cases flared briefly during the race for sheriff when the incumbent, Sherman Block, who died days before the November election, accused challenger Lee Baca of initiating settlement discussions with Rottman without authorization.