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.

Lawrence won back her badge and gun by successfully filing yet another departmental grievance, but she continued working for about four years in the Alternate Response Unit, where she persisted in offering suggestions to improve the work environment. Concerned about the level of stress experienced by her co-workers, for instance, she contacted departmental psychologists and asked if someone would provide the unit with group counseling sessions. Nothing came of that request. On her own time, Lawrence then traveled to St. Petersburg and took a course in "Critical Incident Stress Debriefing" (CISD), which teaches techniques used by police and fire departments nationwide to help employees cope with traumatic situations. Lawrence explains she had learned about CISD from some Metro-Dade firemen, and she thought the police department should use the technique as well. But her suggestions, expressed in memoranda, were rejected.

The harder she tried to act like an effective sergeant, the more Lawrence's relationship with her supervisors seemed to deteriorate. One incident in particular sparked controversy. In the fall of 1993, she complained to the county's affirmative action office about photos of nude women posted on the walls of the homicide unit at police headquarters. Department director Fred Taylor quickly ordered the pinups removed. Workers in the headquarters building, including women, frequently cite the episode as an example of sexual-harassment fever, evidence that the policy had spun out of control.

Lawrence says the incident infuriated her supervisor, Lt. Donald Kausal, and that he began to make increasingly unreasonable demands of her. According to court documents, she claimed that Kausal forbade her from leaving the building without first asking permission and that he delayed her vacation pay. (Kausal contends his actions "were not intentional or malicious" and has denied the accusations.)

The adverse fallout from the pinup-photo affair led Lawrence to file yet another complaint with the EEOC, which later became a formal lawsuit filed in June 1994. Not long afterward the department ordered her to undergo a battery of psychological tests, despite the fact that her supervisors had known about her problems with depression since 1989. The resulting three-page evaluation does not explicitly state whether or not Lawrence is fit for duty, but it does describe her as "anxious, depressed, tense, entrenched in a great deal of anger, and acutely overwhelmed by her current emotional upheaval. The magnitude of her distress is severe and it likely interferes with her ability to think clearly, which places her at increased risk for impulsive behavior. Sleep disturbance, decreased concentration, somatic complaints and forgetfulness are likely to be present. She appears to be experiencing an intense sense of emotional deprivation, loneliness, vulnerability, and helplessness.

"Test data indicate that Sergeant Lawrence has a longstanding and enduring tendency to feel mistreated, picked on, resentful and victimized," the report continues. "She exhibits a negative, angry attitude toward her environment, which impacts her ability to cope with stress, make decisions, and function effectively in interpersonal situations."

Lawrence counters that her feelings should come as no surprise. "My reactions, my emotional condition, is a normal reaction to what I've been subjected to," she argues. "That's not a rationalization. That's a psychological fact." If she had been such a basket case, she wonders, why wasn't that noted in her most recent evaluation, from February 1994, which ranked her as "satisfactory."

Nonetheless, based on the test results, department officials ordered Lawrence to take a compulsory, unpaid leave of absence "for one year or until it is medically determined that you have returned to normal health." She was also stripped of her gun and badge.

Other women who have known Lawrence since her early years on the force say they believe she is suffering the cumulative effects of years of stress. "She was one of the forerunners," observes Becky Card, "but she paid a very high price. I think they'll do anything to discredit her. Any time you're involved in a long lawsuit, it's a stressful time. I think she needs a support group to help her through this."

A high-ranking female officer who asked not to be named refers to Lawrence as "a very intelligent, very caring human being. The problem with Niki is that she didn't know how to pick her battles."

One of those battles took place this past October, when Lawrence got her day in court. As part of her lawsuit alleging that the rope-climbing test for the canine unit was evidence of sexual discrimination, Lawrence also argued that the she was disabled by panic attacks and by her back condition. The department, she contended, had failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her physical handicaps, as required by federal law.

A jury decided the rope-climbing test was not discriminatory, and the judge separately found that Lawrence could not be considered a disabled person because none of her handicaps affected the performance of a "major life activity."

Mention Niki Lawrence's name to Carol Anderson, the assistant county attorney who defends Metro-Dade, and Anderson rolls her eyes. "People are going to court after they have refused generous settlements that they were too greedy to accept," she complains. "There's some awkwardness in handling personal relationships, and there are sometimes people who offend others in the course of those relationships. But we can't throw away hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to people who were merely insulted or inconvenienced. Everyone who complains isn't a victim. Some may have suffered real mental distress on account of real harassment, but that still doesn't entitle them to one million dollars apiece."

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