PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : My Dream of Enforcing the Law Became a Nightmare

<i> Susan Bouman Paolino recently won a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department</i>

It’s hard to say when the dream of service disappeared and the nightmare of sexism began. I remember vividly the morning in 1971 when I reported at 5:30 for my first day as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s cadet. The sheriff, Peter Pitchess, greeted our class and congratulated the women on being the first to enroll in the 26-week training course with the men. Some of the women were upset because they had been told the training would be 11 weeks. I was ecstatic because I knew I would be better prepared for my new job.

Upon graduation, I was sent to Sybil Brand Institute, the county women’s jail--"Fanny Hill,” as the training staff referred to it. While there, I applied for transfer to other positions but was told that I needed patrol experience to qualify. But women could not get patrol experience. Eventually, I transferred to Lakewood Station. While I might have experienced resistance before, I now ran into out-and-out hostility.

There was the dispatcher who refused to speak to women--I had to work through someone else to get my assignments. There was the training officer who drove everywhere at excessive speeds after he realized I let his profanity bounce off me. I mustn’t forget the captain who “did not believe women belonged in patrol” or the lieutenant who would not allow me to work at night because I was a woman. Later I transferred to Pico Rivera, but the problems didn’t stop. Pornographic pictures were placed in my mailbox, as was a photo--obviously taken at the station--of a woman with her blouse raised up.


I was on the sergeant’s list and looking forward to a promotion in 1977, but I began hearing rumors that I would not be promoted. Some of the brass at the department felt that I was a trouble-maker because I wanted to be treated equally.

When the list expired, I would have been the next person to receive a promotion. The department said there had been no vacancies. I investigated for several months and found that there were vacancies to which I could have been promoted--but I had been punished for requesting equal treatment. I filed a complaint with the Civil Service Commission--and numerous other agencies.

Then the real nightmare began. The hearing granted to determine if I had been discriminated against was cancelled before it began. It’s an interesting system: You can’t file a complaint until the list is dead because you might get promoted, but after the list is dead, there is nothing they can do for you because you are not on a valid list. Welcome to “Catch 22,” L.A. County-style.

I decided to fight for what I believed was right. I knew there would be retribution. I was transferred back to the jail in 1978, because “my previous position had been eliminated.” The sheriff’s department and Los Angeles County are formidable opponents, so it required interviews with numerous attorneys before I found Dennis Harley to handle the case for me.

Many women talked to me privately and said they appreciated what I was doing. But when I asked if they would testify or get involved, the answer was always, “No, I can’t go through what you have done. I need my job.” A telling moment came when I received flowers at work with a card that said, “Thanks from those of us who aren’t brave enough.”

Last month, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision that I had been discriminated against by the sheriff’s department. The appeals court also upheld the decision that the examination process discriminated against women. My award of back pay was affirmed; there is a permanent injunction against additional promotions to sergeant until the county develops a valid exam. In the past, for example, a candidate for promotion could not get the maximum score unless he or she had field experience, and women could not get that experience.

Why did I do it? The answer is simple. It had to be done. I had taken enough from an organization that is supposed to enforce the laws but feels it is above the law. As an example, the Civil Service Commission, as early as 1978, acknowledged that the promotional exams for the sheriff’s department were not valid. Only now--1991--is the department under court order not to promote anyone until it develops a valid exam for sergeant.

My career is over. I took a disability retirement after being taken to the hospital for chest pains. The constant harassment, the snide remarks, the porno pictures and the threats on my life took their toll. I still have not accomplished what I set out to do: provide an equal opportunity for women in assignments and promotions. The department defends its treatment of me and its lack of action by claiming that it was not my actions but my abrasive personality that created the problems--despite the fact that I received several “outstanding” evaluations prior to filing the suit. None of my supervisors thought the problem significant enough to lower my ratings. Only after I filed the action in court did I become “abrasive.”

There have, however, been some changes in the sheriff’s department’s treatment of women. There are only a few assignments women are not allowed to work. The number of women sergeants has almost doubled over the course of my fight; the number of women in higher positions has increased.

Unfortunately, sexism is still pervasive throughout the department. Women are tolerated but they are not considered equal. There is still considerable room for improvement in the area of equality. But at least I will not find myself in Dante’s “special place in hell which is reserved for people who see injustice and do nothing about it.”