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.

According to Card, not only was she harassed by her training officers, but a sergeant who was their supervisor also began to badger her for dates. She says she finally filed a sexual harassment complaint with the human resources section of the department in 1983 in an attempt to dissuade him. (Sexual harassment complaints are now routinely handled by internal affairs, which recently was renamed the professional compliance bureau.) "That's when the trouble began," she remembers, her eyes tearing up at the memory. Investigators did not sustain Card's complaint. Instead she was accused of attempting to discredit the sergeant because he had criticized her job performance.

Card believes her complaint unleashed a bureaucratic vendetta. A month after she filed her complaint, she was transferred to the Kendall station and assigned to a female supervisor, who turned out to be Sgt. Niki Lawrence. "I was told that she was assigned to me so I could terminate her," Lawrence asserts, "and there wouldn't be any sign of impropriety." But Lawrence says she observed no problems with Card's work and evaluated her accordingly.

Nonetheless Card was fired, despite a full year's worth of satisfactory evaluations and four commendations. "I found out [the department] had to hire us by federal mandate, but they didn't have to keep us," Card says. So she sued for reinstatement. The department, she claims, initially offered her $100,000 to drop the suit, but eventually agreed to let her return. "I said, 'I don't want money. I want my job back, my respect back. Can you do that?'" According to a settlement contained in her personnel file, the department paid Card's attorney's fees and she returned as a probationary officer.

The deal, however, turned out to have no guarantees. After completing yet another year of probation, Card was informed she had flunked her second chance. This time she held on to her job only because of a technicality: The department had failed to fire her before her probationary period expired. "I produced my court settlement," she points out, "and they angrily agreed I had passed."

Card, who is still with the department, filed her lawsuit in 1985. That same year Metro-Dade adopted a new policy explicitly prohibiting "intimidation, insult, humiliation, or offensive physical/verbal abuse of a sexual nature." In addition, special internal affairs investigators were assigned to handle allegations of sexual harassment. The new policy prompted Niki Lawrence to file her first complaint. After silently seething for more than ten years, Lawrence says her complaint was triggered by a joke a male sergeant had made about her latest project -- an effort to induce the department to change the fabric used in its uniforms. According to Lawrence, several female officers had developed yeast infections as a result of the heavy polyester pants that were standard issue. She was in the process of surveying other female officers about the problem when she learned that the sergeant had authored a bit of doggerel describing the condition as "polyester fester," much to the amusement of fellow officers in her district.

Lawrence's humiliation was compounded when she was abruptly removed from her position as a supervisor of field-training officers. She filed a grievance to protest her removal, and later made a sexual harassment complaint to the internal affairs bureau. (In filing the departmental grievance, Lawrence was contesting the procedure used to remove her from the training squad; her sexual harassment complaint ascribed her removal to sexual discrimination.) In her harassment complaint, she alleged that female officers in her district were treated unfairly and demeaned. As examples, she cited the sergeant's "polyester fester" joke and continuing personal calls and visits to her home made by the high-ranking officer she had accompanied to the Broward motel.

Eventually Lawrence's grievance was upheld, but the sexual harassment complaint was not. (Internal affairs reported that the command staff of the district had decided to rotate all field-training officers in order to prevent burnout, and Lawrence simply had been the first to be selected.) In the wake of her complaint, however, Lawrence says the atmosphere at the Kendall station became unbearable. She even suspected hostile co-workers of vandalism: Her tires were punctured, and turpentine was splashed on her car before she transferred to Key Biscayne in October 1985.

For a while Lawrence's career seemed back on track. She spent two years at the small community station and received twelve commendations as well as above-satisfactory evaluations. Her supervisors praised her knowledge of federal and state laws, her high ethical standards, and her sound judgment. "Sergeant Lawrence consistently displays a high degree of motivation and initiative," wrote Lt. Charles Miller in February 1986. "[She] has maintained an excellent working relationship with all those she has come in contact with.... She takes a genuine interest in any problem affecting one of her subordinates."

Officers who worked under Lawrence describe her as a strict but unusually considerate supervisor. For example, Ofcr. Betsy Walker, a nineteen-year veteran, was involved in a devastating car accident in 1986, shortly after she had transferred from Lawrence's squad. "I had a concussion for six months," Walker recalls. "I couldn't drive, I couldn't walk. Niki made arrangements for me to be picked up and taken to doctors -- I had to go to different therapists twice a day -- she would come check on me herself. She checked on me daily for about six months. I thought she was a very caring person. She really looked out for her people."

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