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The High Cost of Bias

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.

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.

 

"Our purpose is to listen to people and, if they want to make a complaint, help them tell their story," said Sheriff’s Lieutenant Steve Gattis, who heads the center. If necessary, Gattis refers the matter to Internal Affairs.

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.

Block asserted that Baca had asked Rottman what it would take to settle the Tinker case, which the county was then contesting. Baca had been accused by Tinker of failure to investigate a complaint she relayed to him. Rottman lauded Baca at the time, saying, "Chief Baca’s involvement is the only thing that saved the county from getting whipped in court."

Since he was elected sheriff, however, Baca has made no mention of gender equity at the department. In fact, John Daly, a consulting attorney retained by the county to handle the Bouman consent decree, said he has yet to speak with Baca. "Certainly therebeen a delay from the standpoint of getting together with the new sheriff," Daly said in an interview.

In the meantime, department officials have been slow to follow the letter of the reforms detailed in the settlement. So far, according to Pasadena attorney Dennis Harley, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, the consent decree has been "an abysmal failure."

A case in point is the 1996 civil suit filed by Jamila Bayati, who worked five years as a deputy before retiring in 1995 in the face of unremitting hostility.

As detailed in court papers, Bayati’s workplace was "filled with pervasive acts of sexual harassment," including prominent displays of pornography, restrictions on the assignment of women deputies to overtime shifts posted as "male only" and job transfers on the basis of gender. Bayati, a lesbian, was also singled out for jokes and ridicule from fellow deputies and her supervisors.

According to her claim, the harassment against Bayati escalated after she was interviewed by the Homicide Division in connection with the 1994 in-custody death of inmate John Wiley. When she reported that another deputy had "slammed" Wiley into a wall, investigators came back to tell her the original tape was defective, and warned her not to use the word "slam" during a re-interview. When she complained to her boss a week later that "she resented and objected to the continuous violence being exhibited by the Sheriff’s deputies on her shift," she was asked to "consider these guys’ careers." Six months later, Bayati found she had herself been made a target of the Wiley investigation.

Bayati said in a recent interview that her willingness to speak up against sexist comments and transfers because of her gender led to men and women avoiding her. "Some of the most egregious and outrageous stuff is not necessarily the thing that hurts the most," Bayati said. "What hurts the most is that you haven’t done anything wrong and you speak up for what you believe in, and then you see your friends two steps down the hall stop looking at you, like you have a disease and they don’t want to catch it."

More than simply not supporting her, colleagues actively demonstrated against her so they would fit in. When her court case was initially thrown out, deputies from her unit copied a summary of the judgment and posted it on the bulletin board in the Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center jail ward, where she worked. The display was a sort of celebration of her loss.

"They went along with the crusade to prove their loyalty because they think that’s how they can get brownie points, and the sad fact is, it’s true," Bayati said.


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