The Long Fall of Sgt. Niki Lawrence

She was a pioneer at the Metro-Dade Police Department, a rabble-rousing advocate for women behind the badge. And now, of course, she's paying for it.

Sgt. Niki Lawrence lives in a world that has been diminished. Placed on compulsory unpaid leave from the Metro-Dade Police Department, she spends her days alone in her Deerwood Estates home north of Metrozoo. After 22 years of police work, Lawrence survives on just $250 per week in unemployment benefits, her former annual salary of $53,000 now a receding memory. She jokes about economizing: no air conditioner, no magazine subscriptions, no driving unless it's absolutely necessary.

Her life is a tight pattern of reiterated movements among five rooms: the white-tiled kitchen, a tiny bedroom bursting with legal papers, another room where she sometimes lifts weights, her bedroom, and the living room with its large-screen television. On good days Lawrence exercises, plays with her terrier, and works on the numerous lawsuits, complaints, and grievances she has pending against her former employers. On bad days she tanks up on prescription drugs to stave off panic attacks, pills with cheerful names such as Xanax, Ambien, and Dalmane. These are the moments when isolation presses in like a smothering layer of doubt, when she tries to avoid thoughts of suicide and fights against the growing evidence that all her battles have been fruitless.

Although Lawrence is not the only woman to have charged the Metro-Dade Police Department with sexual harassment (in the past year, two other federal suits were filed, and at least a half-dozen potential lawsuits are incubating with the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission), she is, by all accounts, the grande dame of sexual-harassment vigilance, the stalwart advocate of women's rights -- and an object of ridicule.

"I'm sure that some people would like to portray [Lawrence] as a wacko," says Scott Partridge, a retired Metro-Dade sergeant who has known Lawrence since he supervised her in the Seventies. "But if I had to pick the best five police officers who ever worked for me during my seventeen-year career, she would be one of them. The women who are coming on the job today are having a lot easier time of it because of women like Niki who came before them and made the changes early on. I keep telling her, 'You can't give up, you can't let them beat you, you have to keep on going.' But I think she's getting real tired."

There was a time, more than two decades ago, when Lawrence was tireless, a dynamo who prided herself on being a role model for other female police officers. That, however, was before the department took away her gun and badge. Before the rumors spread that she had been detained for being mentally impaired. Before she lost her squad, her self-esteem, and her job.

An unlikely candidate for police work, Lawrence grew up in a quiet, well-to-do town in Bergen County, New Jersey, the daughter of Quakers. As a teenager in 1963, she marched on Washington for civil rights, wore tie-dyed clothing, grew her hair long. But an early marriage pre-empted her youthful rebellion and she moved to Florida with her new husband, a garment worker prone to occasional bursts of ill temper. Their marriage eventually crumbled, and Lawrence began taking courses at Miami-Dade Community College in hopes of finding a career that would enable her to raise her two young sons comfortably. Predisposed toward issues dealing with social justice, Lawrence grew fascinated with the criminal justice system. After two ride-alongs with police officers, she decided to make law enforcement her career.

But she soon learned that in 1970 few police departments were eager to employ women; most, in fact, rejected them outright. The City of Miami maintained a quota system and told her she would be put on a five-year waiting list behind fifty other applicants. In contrast, the Metro-Dade police force professed to welcome women, as long as they had a two-year college degree. Indignant that male officers were hired right out of high school, and exhausted by her efforts to work full-time, attend college, and raise her children alone, Lawrence enlisted the aid of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the unequal hiring practices.

ACLU lawyers eventually persuaded Metro-Dade to abolish the extra educational requirement, and they also prompted the department to stop distinguishing between "patrolmen" and "policewomen." The difference was more than a matter of semantics. Patrolmen were issued six-shot revolvers with four-inch barrels; policewomen received less accurate five-shot revolvers with three-inch barrels. Patrolmen who passed a sergeant's exam were eligible for promotion to the position of "sergeant"; policewomen who passed the same test were raised to the rank of "policewoman two," which carried a smaller pay raise and fewer supervisory responsibilities.

Lawrence's legal struggles did little to endear her to other police trainees when she finally entered the police academy in 1973. Feisty, with a tousle of red hair to complement her outspokenness, the 26-year-old missed no opportunity to needle the chauvinists in her class. As she recalls, "If a guy came up to me and said, 'Women don't belong in police work,' I'd say, 'Excuse me, but I worked very hard to get here. What did you do? You just walked in off the street.'"

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