The Long Fall of Sgt. Niki Lawrence
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.'"
Not surprisingly, her brashness elicited special attention. The other half-dozen women in her class of 82 cadets were allowed to spar with each other when they practiced fighting techniques, but Lawrence's instructors insisted she square off with male partners. A slim woman, about five feet, nine inches tall and not particularly athletic, she wasn't much of a match for her brawnier peers. "I was continually getting thrown because I was so slow," she remembers. "I was continually getting beaten up."
Despite such obstacles, she graduated from the academy, and joined Metro-Dade. Her first assignment placed her at Station Five, now known as the Kendall station, one of the five substations then operated by the department. (Metro-Dade has since grown to include nine such stations.) It was a time when female officers were considered to be interlopers. "I went through this whole period in which I wouldn't get any backups," Lawrence recalls. "I would make a traffic stop on the midnight shift, and people would announce on the radio that they would be there, and then they wouldn't show up." Inside the station she was treated as a novelty. "I was continually manhandled," she says. "I would walk down the hall and someone would snap my bra or hit me in the ass."
Today such actions would be fodder for a federal lawsuit, but back then Lawrence believed them to be tests of her mettle, and she reacted by concentrating her energy on affecting change. She protested the uniform -- an A-line skirt, pumps, and dainty white hat -- by explaining to anyone who'd listen that it not only restricted physical movement, it also turned female officers into targets after dark. She agitated for new gun belts better suited to the female anatomy. She argued for the right of women to patrol by themselves.
"Whatever women may have on the department -- three-quarters of it came from Niki, and women don't realize that," says Donna Munro, a Metro-Dade sergeant who retired two years ago after spending twenty years on the force. "She was extremely competent, a very good police officer. Niki fought to get us a lot of things, and at the time people said, 'Oh, this is stupid.' But it was true: Niki made a lot of changes that people don't know about and don't appreciate. Niki's a rabble-rouser. That's been the gist of her career. But you can't take on [the department] over everything; you have to let some issues go. Sometimes I think she should have walked away."
In fact, there were incidents -- sordid, unpleasant, and unremarkable -- that Lawrence did let pass unchallenged. She tells of a patrol partner who attempted to sexually assault her while she sat on the hood of their car during a break. Luckily she had the keys. She drove back to the station, requested another partner, and let the incident slide. About a year later, she says, a supervisor shoved his hand down her blouse: "I said, 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! What's going on?'" She slugged the supervisor and almost immediately found herself booted from her post under his command, a coveted position in a specialized unit.
After that experience in the late Seventies, Lawrence finally understood. "They sincerely believed that it went with the territory," she recalls bitterly. "You just weren't supposed to complain about it." So in 1980, when a high-ranking officer proposed that they go together to a motel in Broward County, she didn't refuse. "He didn't demand it," she says, "but it was very clear what would happen if I didn't go." As one of the top scorers on the sergeant's exam, Lawrence was scheduled for a promotion, and most likely a transfer to another district, which would disrupt the complicated baby-sitting arrangements she had made for her children. "So I slept with him one time," she says, "and I got to stay in the district." In light of her promotion, this was a minor victory. "Normally, any time you got promoted you got transferred," Lawrence explains. "They seemed to have this belief that you couldn't supervise people you had been working on an equal level with, and my attitude was that if you can supervise, you can supervise. I was one of the first people [to receive a promotion] who didn't get transferred." For the next four years her annual performance evaluations alternated between above satisfactory and excellent, and her personnel file brimmed with commendations.
It was during this period Lawrence crossed paths with Becky Card. Also a single mother, Card had the well-scrubbed mien and wholesome friendliness of a Girl Scout troop leader. Recruited by Metro-Dade in 1982, Card, like all rookies, spent her first year on probation under the close supervision of various field-training officers. She says she had been working for several months when one of her training officers made an unusual proposition. "He said, 'Let's go out in the country and see what kind of police officer you are,'" she recalls. "Stupid me, I thought we were going to do some kind of surveillance. It turns out he wanted sex.'"
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."
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."
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."
In fact, Lawrence's lawyers had asked the federal jury to award her more than one million dollars. She justifies the amount by explaining that she was asking only for compensation, not for punitive damages. The compensation broke down as $68,000 in past lost wages, $736,000 in future lost wages, and lost pension benefits of $566,000. (Lawrence does admit she turned down a $250,000 settlement offer from the county before going to trial.)
The courtroom defeat seems to have deflated Lawrence's confidence. Her second lawsuit -- this one regarding Lt. Donald Kausal and the post-pinup controversies -- may end in settlement. "I have a very good case," she contends, "but if I go to court and I win, they're going to appeal and we're talking about another five years, and I don't know if I have it in me." From vows of fighting on till the bitter end, she now allows she's prepared to walk away from it all with nearly nothing. All she'd like in a settlement is reimbursement of her attorney's fees and her retirement benefits.
"I'm at the point where I've lost all my friends, I'm completely isolated, I'm starting to have real bad panic attacks, and I'm not going to allow it to kill me emotionally," she says. "If something positive were to come out of my case, whether it's positive in the sense of helping me directly or if it improves the system for sexual-harassment victims in the future, it would make this all worthwhile. Looking back on 25 years of battle with the police department, it has to have counted for something. It really does.
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