Is Law Enforcement the Next Industry to Face #MeToo?
By John D. Winer
August 16, 2018
With the arrival of the #MeToo movement, one of the last industries to address workplace sexual harassment is law enforcement. However, a new bill working its way through the state legislature may provide stronger protections for victims of workplace sexual harassment within the law enforcement industry.
If SB 1300 becomes law, it would declare that harassment creates a hostile, offensive, oppressive, or intimidating work environment and deprives victims of their statutory right to work in a place free of discrimination. In a workplace harassment suit, the plaintiff would not need to prove that his or her job performance has declined as a result of the harassment.
A single incident of misconduct is sufficient to create a triable issue regarding the existence of a hostile work environment if the harassment has interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance or created a hostile or offensive work environment.
This law could lead to a breakthrough in the code of silence that prevents many women and minority members of law enforcement from coming forward to report sexual misconduct, harassment or discrimination on the force.
The most common perpetrators are coworkers, supervisors and command staff. Female officers who experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment reported feeling more stressed at work, resulting in negative effects on their mental and physical health as well as overall job satisfaction. Often times, victims are afraid to report misconduct because they are viewed as troublemakers and experience retribution.
That’s what happened to a former female NYPD officer who lost a month of pay and was forced to enter a 3-month outpatient rehabilitation program after reporting sexual harassment. Jazmia Inserillo told media outlets that as a rookie in the department, a lieutenant touched her inappropriately, made sexual comments, gave her massages and engaged in quid pro quo harassment.
After officers at her precinct and a union delegate ignored her complaints, Inserillo filed a complaint with NYPD’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. Inserillo told Buzzfeed News she felt “alienated and bullied by her colleagues.” The department demanded she see a psychologist and receive treatment for alcohol abuse, even though Inserillo insisted she didn’t have an alcohol problem, which several coworkers corroborated.
Eventually an internal NYPD investigation determined Inserillo’s allegations against her supervisor were “sustained” and the department transferred the perpetrator to another precinct and docked him 10 days of vacation. That disciplinary response is evidence of an unequal system within law enforcement which appears to punish those who speak out about offenses more harshly than the officers who commit misconduct. A public database containing records on thousands of New York police misconduct cases exposes the disciplinary disparity. According to the files obtained by Buzzfeed News, officers who committed serious offenses that warranted termination from the force, were instead assigned to “dismissal probation” essentially amounting to a slap on the wrist.
A yearlong investigation by the Associated Press found that about 1,000 officers nationwide lost their badges over a six-year timeframe for sex crimes involving rape, sexual misconduct and sex crimes that include possession of child pornography. But not all states have a way to track an officer’s decertification. States like California, New Jersey and Massachusetts have no laws that prevent an officer fired from one department from getting a job at a different law enforcement agency. Colorado currently has one of the strongest laws in the nation to prevent bad cops from job hopping. Unlike other states which allow officers to resign as long as they sign a settlement agreement that shields their misconduct to potential employers, Colorado recently passed a law that prohibits these non-disclosure agreements.
The federal government could do more to help combat the mistreatment of female and minority officers. While it oversees the National Practitioner Data Bank, which tracks whether a health care professional has had its license revoked, congress has failed attempts to pass laws that would track law enforcement and correctional officers. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recognizes more reform is needed to combat sexual victimization and has published guidelines aimed at ensuring “the safety and dignity of everyone in the community.”
But that’s easier said than done when trying to reform a male dominated culture that has turned a blind eye to sexual harassment for decades.
Promoting and recruiting more women for leadership positions and putting more female officers in the field, is a good start. Enacting stronger laws in more states can also help improve training and expand disciplinary actions, including decertification. Members of law enforcement leadership must hold personnel accountable to ensure a harassment-free workplace. It’s critical to make sure employees feel comfortable reporting harassment and aren’t punished for speaking out. Leadership must commit to fostering an environment of inclusiveness and respect for minorities and women.
Throughout the years, our law firm, has represented mostly female, but occasionally male victims of sexual harassment and discrimination within police forces. In addition, we have had many cases against correctional officers who have been sexually abused and harassed.
Most of the cases involve either a failure to promote women throughout the ranks; female officers or other employees are treated differently and inferiorly to the males or females are subjected to belittling and often disgusting sexual harassment.
As a strict hierological and military-like organization, it has been our firm’s experience that police departments and correctional facilities are far slower and resistant than companies in the private industry to allow women to integrate into the workplace as equals. We have found that even security guard companies, which often share with police departments the military-like titling of positions (sergeants, lieutenants, etc.), are veritable cesspools of sexual harassment.
Police departments, security companies and correctional facilities often have male-dominated leadership with titles that appear to convey far more power than non-military titles such as manager or supervisor. They appear to give these individuals, often power-hungry men, license to treat female employees like dirt and to exclude them from the men’s club enjoyed by their male counterparts.
Another factor that seems to cause an increase in sexual harassing conduct in these professions is the fact that often males and females are working alone together in the field where the type of controls over employee behavior that exists in private industry office buildings, stores or factories do not apply. The fact that male superiors have so much access to female employees with no one else around, provides far more opportunity for detrimental behavior than in most private industries. Almost by definition any verbal or physical sexual harassment will devolve into a he said/she said situation where women are understandably very scared to come forward.
Since public safety officers and security guards are aware of rules of evidence, like the admissibility of text messages and emails, the offending male officers are in a position to know how to avoid getting in trouble by making sure they don’t leave a paper trail of evidence and witnesses when they sexually abuse and harass their female subordinates.
Finally, the risk of severe retaliation is greater when dealing with police and correctional officers than it is in private industry. Because of the hierarchical structure of the organizations, it is very easy for a superior to destroy a subordinate’s career; prevent promotions; and make the job of their subordinates absolutely miserable by giving them the worst and most dangerous assignments, and not providing back up when necessary.
Like in most industries, true equality and a harassment free environment will not come until females move up through the ranks at the same speed and frequency as males. If changes aren’t made, there’s a risk more women will leave the law enforcement profession which only creates more of a gender imbalance.