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.

But a move back to south Dade in June 1987 reignited old antagonisms. Her new station was Cutler Ridge, not Kendall, where she previously has worked, but the friction between the 40-year-old sergeant and her superiors was similar, as evidenced by her evaluations, which noted her "autocratic demeanor" even while commending her judgment and leadership skills.

Lawrence also admits to having felt stymied generally. "There were so many units that excluded females," she says. Repeated requests for assignment to specialized units such as robbery, internal affairs, or the training bureau were denied. Twice she passed the written portion of the lieutenant's test, only later to fail the more subjective "assessment test" that measures skills in simulated situations.

In October 1988, Lawrence applied unsuccessfully for a vacancy as sergeant of the canine unit, and later complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that she'd improperly been disqualified from consideration because she failed a rope-climbing test that discriminated against female applicants. That complaint later would become part of a federal lawsuit, but in the meantime she continued working at Cutler Ridge, where a series of health problems quickly put her on a collision course with her supervisors.

In March 1989, Lawrence suffered a minor injury to her right wrist while vaulting a fence to investigate a ringing burglar alarm. Her injury became arthritic, and one of the small bones in her wrist eroded, creating a gap within the bone structure and causing excruciating pain. Lawrence's doctor recommended a partial bone fusion, but the operation was not approved by the department's risk-management division for more than two years.

Her physical discomfort mounted as a congenital spinal deformity became aggravated by the pressure produced by her gun belt. Lawrence requested permission to remove the belt while filling out paperwork in the station. That request was denied, and she was removed from her post as a patrol supervisor and ordered to work the desk at the station while the department verified her fitness for duty.

Although Lawrence's personnel file contains letters from her doctors attesting to her physical ability to work her regular job, as well as evidence that she had taught three self-defense courses one day prior to being removed from duty, she was not sent back to patrol. The desk job not only carried a stigma, she recalls, it also required her to spend most of her time sitting down, which only exacerbated the pain caused by the gun belt. Particularly galling to her was the fact that other employees considered physically unfit were allowed to wear civilian clothes while they carried out their duties at the station. She, on the other hand, was not even permitted to wear a shoulder holster.

Lawrence says she became convinced that the man in charge of the Cutler Ridge district, Maj. Thomas Lamont, was singling her out for punishment. She fell into a deep depression and began seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist. "I was really just in a state of shock," she says. "I couldn't believe that I was being taken off the road, put on the desk, and forced to wear this gun belt, which caused so much pain for me -- and I have a high tolerance for pain. But there were some days I had to take two hours of sick leave and go home because I couldn't stand it. To know that it was a totally arbitrary decision made by one individual was very hard for me to understand."

In May 1989, Lawrence filed a second complaint with the federal EEOC, accusing Major Lamont of retaliating against her for submitting the first complaint about the canine unit test. Six months later, she found herself transferred to the Northside station, a move she believes was a direct consequence of her EEOC complaints. She points out that Northside was 38 miles from her home, further away than three other stations, including Cutler Ridge.

Despite the inconvenience, the transfer brought temporary relief. After a month at Northside, she was allowed to return to patrol. Her evaluations improved, and for a brief period it seemed her problems with the department would be resolved. There did remain the matter of her wrist operation, however. Frustrated by the department's refusal to pay for the procedure, Lawrence hired a worker's compensation attorney, who filed a claim arguing that the needless physical suffering was causing Lawrence psychological damage. The department's response was immediate. The claim was cited as evidence that Lawrence was psychologically unfit for duty, and on October 23, 1990, she was stripped of her gun and badge and transferred to the Alternate Response Unit, a section of the communications bureau whose primary function is to take police reports over the telephone. Nicknamed "the rubber gun squad," the unit is a common holding pen for officers who have been relieved of duty pending disciplinary action or the results of an internal investigation.

Soon after Lawrence was transferred, one of her former supervisors, Lt. Charles Miller of Key Biscayne, allegedly announced during roll call that she had been "Baker Acted," police jargon for detaining someone who is mentally disturbed. Lawrence filed an internal affairs complaint against Miller, which was upheld. "I feel that my reputation has been so totally annihilated that nobody actually knows the truth," Lawrence sighs. "All they've heard are rumors, and the rumors are terrible."

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