After Stormy Police Career, Woman Heads Over to the Bar

United Press International

The first woman to head a police force in a major U.S. city is facing a new and imposing challenge: helping the California State Bar clear a backlog of 2,500 citizen complaints against lawyers.

Penny Harrington, 46, recently named special assistant to the Bar’s director of investigations, knows what it is like to work under a spotlight, to force her way past locked doors and to ruffle feathers.

For a whirlwind 17 months beginning in January, 1985, Harrington was chief of police in Portland, Ore.--the first woman in the nation to hold such a post in a major city.

Ms. magazine named Harrington, who now lives in Glendale, its woman of the year. And a Hollywood producer inquired about making a movie about her.


But within a month of taking the reins of the 850-officer police force under the glare of the national media, Harrington was rocked by a series of charges, including nepotism and a unilateral management style, until she was forced to resign in June, 1986.

Harrington took a year and a half to travel. She moved to the Los Angeles area, applied for police chief positions in other cities, worked briefly for an executive recruiting firm in Irvine and was hired by the Bar, where she began working this month.

Clayton Anderson, director of the Bar’s office of investigations, said he hopes Harrington can help clear the backlog of cases against lawyers that have been languishing six months or longer.

Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp appointed a State Bar discipline monitor last year under a new law designed to force the Bar to upgrade its system of handling citizen complaints against the state’s 105,000 lawyers.


Among the changes monitor Robert Fellmeth has urged are: adding more investigators at competitive salaries, more resources to handle special cases such as attorneys convicted of crimes, and hiring administrative law judges to replace referees who hear attorney-discipline cases.

Discipline System Slow

In his third progress report to the state Legislature on Sept. 1, Fellmeth said the Bar’s discipline system was still too slow but said he believed the Legislature’s allocation of funds to hire more investigators could get the system moving in 15 to 18 months.

Anderson said that he expects to hire about 11 investigators with the money and that Harrington will help train them.

“She’ll be doing primarily special projects and reporting directly to me,” Anderson said. “She will be doing training programs for new-hire people and ongoing in-service training for people already here. She also will be working on standardizing procedures among the various investigative units, looking at various forms we are using and seeing if we can consolidate them and minimize paper.

“She has a very solid, good managerial background with the police department. Looking at her work there, and reputation and ability on these types of things, she emerged as an extremely well-qualified person.”

Harrington said she will try to “make it easier and quicker to process reports.” She is also considering setting up a prosecution unit to “take on major cases--those involving a lot of different complaints.”

“I’m very good at taking a system and saying, ‘What isn’t working here?’ The State Bar has grown rapidly, and things tend to get added onto other things instead of replacing them.”


Harrington said she doubts she will ruffle many feathers at the Bar.

“Whenever you’re going to change anything, people are going to resist it,” she said. “But investigators are so frustrated with their high caseloads that they want things to change. I have really high hopes. People want this to happen. In my opinion, ‘Portland’ could never happen again anywhere. You couldn’t have that many major crises happen in such short a time.”

Harrington fought her way up the ranks of the Portland Police Department in the early 1960s when there were no women patrol officers, women’s pay was lower, and inequalities abounded.

Turbulent Tenure

In 21 years on the police force before becoming chief, the mother of three brought 42 lawsuits and Civil Service complaints aimed at ending sex discrimination.

“Oh, a couple of times I thought, ‘I’ll leave,’ because it was so bad,” Harrington said. “But when I got in those moods and would get really down, I would think, ‘Are you going to let them win? Are you going to let them drive you out?’ ”

Within a month of becoming police chief, Harrington was faced with budget cutbacks and laid off 72 officers, the city’s first police layoffs in 15 years.

She combined the drug and vice unit with the detectives division and transferred officers to new duties.


Feathers were ruffled. Veteran officers were angry.

Racial tensions increased when a police officer put a lethal chokehold on a black security officer fighting with a white man. Police shot an 86-year-old black grandmother who was mistaken for a gunman.

Harrington barred chokeholds and set up a citizen committee to investigate police misconduct. She insisted on making the president of the police union, who was working full time for the union but getting half his salary from the city, work a police desk, taking reports.

More ruffled feathers.

Finally, her husband, Gary Harrington, who with her sister was an officer on the police force, was accused of tipping a tavern owner to a police undercover investigation. He was demoted and later took a stress disability leave.

A commission set up to investigate Harrington’s management of the police force concluded that she had been “insensitive” to problems stemming from her family relationships in the department and had “failed to consult with her commanders before making important decisions.”