Punishment Policy: Give 'Em a Break

The Metro-Dade Police Department has nearly completed its program to have all 4300 employees -- sworn officers and civilians alike -- view a training video explaining the department's sexual harassment policy, which was adopted in 1985 and revised several times since then. According to the video, any act or statement with a sexual connotation can be considered sexual harassment. "Remember, whether or not it's unacceptable is in the eye of the beholder," warns the video's narrator. "If you feel remotely uncomfortable with the way you are treated, don't hesitate to report it immediately." The training tape also threatens offenders with severe punishment. "Discipline may include suspension or termination, depending on the incident," a grim-faced police officer advises.

Since Metro-Dade began screening the video last year as part of a settlement agreement with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the result of a complaint filed by two female officers), a number of department employees say that workplace relationships have taken on an Orwellian cast. "It is making people so paranoid that we can't work together any more," gripes a long-time female officer who once filed a sexual harassment complaint herself.

A review of department records, however, suggests that any perceptions of a crackdown on offenders is more likely due to the mandatory, day-long sexual harassment training sessions than to vigorous enforcement of the policy. In fact, while approximately 38 percent of all sexual harassment complaints filed since 1989 were found to have merit, the punishment meted out to offenders has been far from severe. Only one officer, a probationary rookie, was terminated. Four others were suspended without pay, none for more than twenty days. The rest were merely reprimanded.

Maj. Richard Ward, head of the department's training bureau, defends the disciplinary record and points out that in order for discipline to withstand appeal, it must be applied consistently throughout the department and over time. And certainly some victims of sexual harassment praise the department for reacting to their complaints with sensitivity and swiftness.

Sgt. Lorraine Bloomfield, for example, filed a complaint in 1991 while she was an officer working at the Miami Lakes station. She stated to internal affairs investigators that during the daily roll call, a corporal had been spreading malicious rumors about her sexual habits. Several officers confirmed he had sneered that Bloomfield had slept with almost every officer in the district and had used a coat hanger for a self-induced abortion.

Following the investigation the corporal was issued a two-day suspension for misconduct, though the allegations of sexual harassment were not upheld because he was not found to have created a hostile working environment. "All the way down the line I had support," Bloomfield recalls. "Both males and females were offended." Bloomfield acknowledges, however, that one factor played an important role in her decision to file her complaint: She knew she was about to receive a promotion. Before the investigation ended, she held a higher rank than the corporal she was accusing of harassment -- a clear psychological advantage.

Metro-Dade's sexual harassment policy is ten years old, but the department only began tracking complaints in 1989; since then 58 have been filed. Based on the current number of female officers -- 552 of 2956 -- about ten percent have filed sexual harassment complaints. (Three complainants were male.) More than half the complaints were made in the past two years.

Cmdr. Harriet Janosky, head of the the department's "women's committee," views the upsurge in harassment complaints as a reflection of the increased emphasis on addressing the problem, as well as the success of the department's educational program. She also points out that incidents of sexual harassment are hardly restricted to Metro-Dade, noting that a 1993 Florida Department of Law Enforcement study found 62 percent of all female police officers in Florida considered themselves victims of sexual harassment. Forty percent said they had seen sexually oriented materials or heard off-color jokes at work on a daily basis. Twenty percent described their workplace as a hostile environment.

Initiated by Capt. George Robinson of the Ocala Police Department, the study was conducted as part of a research project for FDLE's Executive Institute. Robinson admits the results concerned him. "I wanted to think that it was less prevalent than it was reported," he says. He recommends that departments take immediate action to educate their employees about sexual harassment and to enforce policies.

Metro-Dade has made a strong commitment to education. However, the enforcement aspect of the department's policy has raised questions among some officers. An examination of 25 sexual harassment investigations completed during the past seven years, and interviews with a half-dozen victims, reveals inconsistencies in the way the department deals with complaints, especially those filed by women against their male superiors. In one particularly shocking case that allegedly bordered on sexual battery, an officer was suspended for only twenty days, and the incident was later expunged from his record altogether.

Ofcr. Donna Stewart had made arrangements to go home early on February 11, 1990. The eight-year veteran, who was suffering from a broken ankle at the time, had labored through an unpleasant shift at the Miami Lakes station. Not only was her ankle throbbing, but the young officer working with her had spent the entire afternoon making graphic sexual comments.

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