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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.

"He asked me if I swallowed," Stewart later told Sgt. Kenneth Bernatt, an investigator with the internal affairs bureau (also known as the internal review bureau and currently called the professional compliance bureau). Stewart, age 32, reported that Ofcr. Brian Montero had mentioned "that he was getting an erection, that he wanted to be inside me, inside my mouth. This went on for a few hours."

Stewart said she tried to ignore the 22-year-old officer and finally got up to leave shortly before 6:00 p.m. She picked up her crutches and began hobbling toward the exit. "Officer Montero was following close behind," she recounted in a sworn statement given a week and a half after the incident. "And I went down the two flights of stairs to where the cell area is, where the prisoner booking area is, he started pushing me -- holding on to me and pushing me back into the cell area. And all the while I kept resisting him, pushing against him to try and leave the station. But he continued to just keep pushing, picking me up and pushing me against the wall.

"I tried to get away. I resisted him by pushing as best I could. I mean, I was on crutches, I had the cast. So I was just trying to push against his chest with my hands, telling him to get away from me.

"Well, he put his body real tight up against mine, like to pin me against the wall, and said, 'I want to fuck your brains out.'"

As Stewart struggled with Montero, a buzzer sounded in the lobby -- someone wanted to enter the building. At that moment Montero finally let her go. As Stewart moved to open the front door for another officer, she said Montero again followed her. Just before she left the building, he grabbed one of her crutches. "He wouldn't let me have it," she told Sergeant Bernatt. "Finally he gave it back to me and I left the station."

As word of Stewart's formal complaint spread around the department, two other women filed additional complaints, alleging that Montero had made crude and graphic remarks to them, as well. One of the women said Montero had put his arms around her and asked if he could see her breasts.

In three separate sworn statements to investigators, Montero asserted that the incidents did not occur the way the women had described them, and he categorically denied forcing Stewart into the cell block or molesting her.

All three women were asked to take a lie detector test (the reports do not indicate whether Montero was also asked). Only Stewart agreed. She passed, and her complaint was sustained. The other two complaints were not upheld for lack of corroborating witnesses or evidence.

Although the department's discipline coordinator initially recommended that Montero be terminated, Metro-Dade Police Department Director Fred Taylor reduced his punishment to a twenty-day suspension. (All internal affairs investigations are reviewed by Taylor.)

Today Montero's personnel file contains no record of the incident. His current supervisor, Maj. Madeline Pearson, says she knows nothing about the allegations made by Donna Stewart or the other two female officers. Once Montero was transferred to her command (following his suspension in early 1992), she says the officer was given a fresh start.

Disciplinary actions are routinely purged from officers' personnel files every two years. In fact, around the time of Stewart's complaint, notes in Montero's file leave the impression that his behavior was under control. In his evaluation spanning April 1989 to April 1990 (the incident occurred in February 1990), Montero is described as displaying "a 'cocky,' 'macho' attitude, which at this point has not presented a problem." However, the next year's evaluation states, "Although Montero relates well to his squad members, there have been difficulties with other female peers." Still, from 1989 to 1991 all of Montero's evaluations were "satisfactory," and he was recommended for a merit raise each of those years.

In explaining the disciplinary procedures regarding sexual harassment, Major Ward notes that first-time offenders are often given a second chance. "We also believe in progressive discipline," he adds, referring to the practice of more severe punishment for repeated offenses. Yet other cases suggest the department is reluctant to deal harshly with officers who repeatedly violate the sexual harassment policy.

 

In 1986 a civilian secretary at the Kendall station filed two complaints against Sgt. Richard Braithwaite, accusing him of forcing her to have sexual intercourse during a social date and of sexually harassing her afterward with threatening phone calls. The secretary withdrew her initial complaint of sexual battery, but an internal affairs investigation confirmed that Braithwaite had stalked her during lunch hours and left personal letters for her at home and at work. As a result, Braithwaite was suspended without pay for four days.

In 1993 two female officers from the Kendall station filed another sexual harassment complaint against Braithwaite. Ofcr. Lisa Goulden and Ofcr. Lisa Locasio accused Braithwaite of referring to them as "dykes" during daily roll calls dating back four years. After a seven-month investigation involving more than 31 sworn statements, a disposition panel upheld the women's allegations. Braithwaite's punishment for this second offense: a five-day suspension without pay. His appeal of that action is pending.

A similar case involved Sgt. Dante Starks. An extensive investigation found that Starks had verbally and physically harassed five female officers between 1989 and 1993. A top-level review panel, which characterized the sergeant's behavior as "hostile and offensive," issued a stern memo in August 1994 that warned: "Collectively, these incidents indisputably support the finding that [Starks's] actions were at times criminal.... The liability in Sergeant Starks's behavior is too great to assume, for himself, the department, and those female employees with whom he may interact in the future." As detailed in the New Times article "Dante's Inferno" (April 13), two sources familiar with the case say the sergeant's own supervisor urged his superiors to consider firing him. Instead Stark was demoted one rank and reassigned to a unit that patrols Miami International Airport.

Cmdr. Harriet Janosky admits that the department may have made some errors in the past. "I also think that the department has made a real effort to correct these issues so that they don't recur," she says. "It's a learning process. Currently we have a very stringent policy, [but] I think that as long as human beings are involved, there is no fool-proof system.


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