Sexual Harassment a Tough LAPD Problem : Police: Documents and interviews reveal a range of allegations. Chief lauded for effort to change environment.
Despite years of increasingly pointed warnings and mounting legal challenges, sexual harassment at the Los Angeles Police Department remains an entrenched and serious problem, according to documents and numerous police officials who say there is a climate of hostility toward women that has until recently gone virtually unchecked.
Court records, internal police documents and interviews with police officers, supervisors and department critics reveal a number of cases of alleged harassment: from a sexually explicit computer program left in the terminals of female officers, to supervisors who press subordinates for dates, to three pending lawsuits involving claims that officers raped colleagues.
Treatment of female officers takes on additional urgency because the department’s top leaders believe women, who generally get high marks for avoiding excessive-force complaints, are a key component of the LAPD’s much-vaunted plan to bring community-based policing to the city. Moreover, the LAPD is vigorously trying to hire more female officers to satisfy legal requirements.
Sexual harassment is not unique to the LAPD, which like many organizations is trying to come to terms with new and sometimes misunderstood definitions of the practice. Some male officers, especially longtime veterans, say they feel that the rules have been changed in the middle of the game--that they suddenly are being threatened with punishment for conduct that would have been laughed about just a few years ago.
“You have to expect that when you go from one culture to another, from all-male to a mixture, that you’re going to have some difficulties,” said Judy Rosener, a professor at the UC Irvine graduate school of management. “We’re playing new roles, but we don’t have new rules. A lot of police officers don’t understand.”
The Police Protective League has looked at the issue from both sides, representing in separate cases men accused of sexual harassment and women complaining of it. “In a male-dominated profession, there was not enough education in preparation for women coming into the ranks. . . . That has created some problems, but we’re talking about a small percentage of our officers,” said the union’s president, Danny L. Staggs.
As the LAPD attempts to tackle the problem, many credit Police Chief Willie L. Williams with taking important steps in the right direction. They are particularly heartened by the chief’s decision to authorize a sweeping sexual harassment audit at the LAPD’s West Los Angeles station, some details of which were first reported last month.
“It’s very, very clear that this administration without any shadow of a doubt is going to create a different environment for women in this department,” Williams said Wednesday. “If a senior manager stands in the way . . . they’re going to be gone. Period.”
Despite such comments--Williams’ strongest public pronouncements on the subject--some women officers and their advocates worry that it could take years for his efforts to yield tangible results.
Police Commission President Gary Greenebaum, who has enthusiastically backed Williams’ attempts to attack harassment in the ranks, said it may take time to change the attitudes of a relatively small but entrenched number of officers who have yet to comprehend the importance of the issue. But he stressed that Williams has begun to turn the department around.
In the meantime, the LAPD is wrestling with dozens of complaints. According to public files and internal documents obtained by The Times:
* In the past five years, there have been at least eight cases of female LAPD employees alleging that they were sexually assaulted by co-workers. There have been no criminal prosecutions. Three incidents are the subject of current Internal Affairs investigations. Three others are the subject of pending lawsuits: In one case the accused officer was fired after an in-house hearing, while the other two suits were filed after the accused officers were cleared by internal disciplinary boards. In another case, an officer was allowed to resign before the case was adjudicated internally. Still another resulted in a 1990 lawsuit that was settled out of court.
* The LAPD logged 43 “gender-related personnel complaints” against police officers last year. Five were alleged assaults, four involved “inappropriate pictures/photos/video,” and seven involved touching. In 25 cases, officers were accused of making inappropriate comments and in two cases officers were accused of both touching and commenting inappropriately.
* Two studies, commissioned by the department in 1987, found widespread complaints among female officers about harassment and discrimination--although the Christopher Commission determined that the LAPD had not followed up on those findings four years later.
* Despite reports calling attention to the problem, until last year the LAPD never compiled records of sexual harassment cases. Instead, the cases were included with other allegations under broad headings such as conduct unbecoming an officer. “I’m not willing to say (the data) was purposely buried, but certainly nobody cared to keep track,” said City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who chairs the council’s Personnel Committee. “It was not important enough. That is what it tells me.”
* In the last several years, the city of Los Angeles has spent more than $400,000 settling 11 sexual harassment cases--six involving the LAPD. Another dozen or so cases are pending and at least three major law firms have notified the city that they intend to file additional sexual harassment lawsuits against the department.
There are more than 1,100 women officers on the department--about 15% of the 7,600 total. Some critics of department attitudes say harassment will not be erased until the number of women in the department comes closer to the 44% in the general work force.
As troubling as the harassment, according to many female officers, is the LAPD’s historic indifference to the problem. Although the department began accepting female police officers in 1973 and has made steady gains in the number of women officers since then, commissions and studies from the late 1980s and early 1990s portrayed harassment and discrimination as serious problems. Those internal studies produced little action.
All that has created a culture of acquiescence among many female LAPD officers, who say they have silently put up with harassment rather than fight back.
“I learned it’s better to shut up and not do anything,” said one 10-year LAPD veteran who said she put up with harassment for years before resigning in 1993 and ultimately winning a $50,000 settlement from the city. “If you say something, you create enemies. . . . There’s going to be some type of retaliation, whether it’s your peers or your supervisor.”
As a result, some female officers say they do not have confidence that the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division will fairly handle their complaints. In turn, that has undermined confidence in the department’s women’s coordinator because she is married to a captain at Internal Affairs. Department leaders say that distrust is unwarranted, but they acknowledge it exists.
All of that has left many female officers discouraged.
“You see it as a normal part of work relations,” said one officer who has worked for the LAPD for six years and who asked that her name not be used. “I think everyone thinks it’s really not a problem until something really blatant happens to them or someone else they know. Then you start thinking back. When I started thinking back about all I had gone through, I was shocked.”
Among the most serious accusations are the cases in which police officers are accused of sexually assaulting their colleagues.
Department sources and others say there have been at least eight such allegations leveled against LAPD officers in the last five years. Two of the cases were disposed of, one when a lawsuit was settled out of court, the other when the accused officer was allowed to resign. But six incidents still are being contested, either within the department or in court.
Of the three cases currently under internal LAPD review, one is based on an allegation that a police officer raped a colleague with his gun. The other two, sources say, involve police officers who allegedly forced subordinates to have sex with them in return for favorable treatment at work.
While those cases are being reviewed internally, three others are working their way through the court system. In separate lawsuits, three officers say they were assaulted by male LAPD officers. (The accusers’ names are not included in this story; it is The Times’ policy generally not to identify alleged victims of sexual assault.)
One officer who is suing said she had been partying at the Los Angeles Police Academy on Sept. 8, 1990; by her own admission, she drank too much that night. As some of her friends were leaving, she ducked into a women’s restroom to vomit.
According to her lawsuit, Officer Ernest Hill took advantage of her predicament to rape her while she was hunched over the toilet. On Oct. 16, three weeks after the incident, she filed a complaint with Internal Affairs.
After conducting an investigation, the Internal Affairs officer recommended that Hill be sent to a Board of Rights, the LAPD’s chief disciplinary body. But on Jan. 28, 1991, then-Chief Daryl F. Gates dismissed the charges against Hill because he was advised that a board would be unlikely to reach a conclusion because there were no other witnesses.
Dissatisfied, the female officer continued to press the department to take action against Hill. In late 1991, the matter was ordered to a trial board. The internal charges against Hill were sustained and he was removed from the department. His case, like the four others that have completed the internal LAPD disciplinary process, was referred to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office; no officers were prosecuted.
Hill’s attorney did not return calls seeking comment.
A second case cited in a lawsuit also began with a party at the Police Academy on May 29, 1991, where the woman met an officer of the LAPD’s elite Metro Division. According to her lawsuit, the officer offered her a ride home. She accepted.
Once there, she says that the male officer asked to come in, and she let him. According to her, he left to move his car a short time later. She believed he had gone for the evening, so she went to bed.
“A few minutes later, defendant . . . re-entered (her) home, without her knowledge or permission,” the suit against him and the LAPD asserts. “After returning to (her) home, and despite (her) repeated demands that he stop, defendant . . . forcibly sexually assaulted” her.
The female officer has not worked full time since 1991 and says in her suit that she is suffering from a stress-related heart problem.
The male officer, in a closed hearing, was found not guilty by a department Board of Rights. He remains on duty.
The male officer’s lawyer, Robert E. Kelly Jr., said his client is an innocent victim who spurned the woman’s advances. “Harassment may be a problem (at the Police Department),” Kelly said, “but my client is not part of it.”
The third pending court case in which sexual abuse is alleged involves a rank-and-file officer and one of the department’s top officials.
In the spring of 1992, the female officer allegedly asked a high-ranking LAPD official for some advice.
For some reason--attorneys on each side offer conflicting explanations--the two officers agreed to meet at the man’s apartment after work. Once there, according to the female officer’s lawsuit, the man threw her on a bed, pinned her down and raped her. She contends that as she lay weeping beneath him, the male officer said: “I am an old man, this will not take too long.”
According to his attorney, Barry Levin, the male officer admits having sex with the woman but denies that he raped her. An LAPD Board of Rights, in a closed hearing, cleared him of wrongdoing last year. Her suit against him and the department goes to trial next week.
The rape cases are by far the most serious allegations of sexual impropriety by LAPD officers against their colleagues. But there are scores of other complaints scattered throughout the department.
Some of the harassment seems merely juvenile: In the late 1980s, a computer program of two people having sex began making the rounds in the department. Male officers would occasionally leave a disk with the program in the terminal of a female counterpart, along with a note suggesting that the female officer call up “Parkme,” the name of the program. When she did, the crude graphic would appear on the screen.
Sometimes, however, the alleged harassment gets more personal, according to a variety of pending civil lawsuits:
Take Cynthia Juarez, who complained in 1987 that she was subjected to “lewd remarks and conduct"--including those from a colleague who allegedly shook her shoulders to make her breasts shake. Or Alicia Robalino, a civilian employee who said that after she broke off an affair with a co-worker, he launched a campaign against her, following her home, breaking into her apartment and at one point throwing her from a moving car. Or the woman identified in court papers only as “Jane Doe,” who filed suit last year against the LAPD after a homicide detective named Carlos Brizzolara allegedly made sexually explicit remarks to her, asked her out on dates and, on one occasion, pushed her head toward his lap as she bent over to retrieve a napkin in a restaurant.
Another officer who witnessed the restaurant incident told an LAPD Board of Rights that the female officer jerked her head up and said, “Cut it out.” Brizzolara, according to the female officer and the witness, explained his actions by saying: “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
The Board of Rights cleared Brizzolara of sexual harassment as a result of that incident--but not because it doubted that the incident actually occurred. The Board called Brizzolara’s conduct totally inappropriate, while at the same time declining to find him guilty because, in its words, there was “no evidence of sexual gratification or sexual harassment.”
Williams was among those dissatisfied by that board’s work, and he ordered a second board to review a second set of sexual harassment allegations against Brizzolara; that time, Brizzolara, who through his lawyer on Wednesday denied any wrongdoing, was found guilty on eight of 11 charges. He is appealing, and a judge has ordered the LAPD to grant him yet another Board of Rights.
Critics of the initial board ruling argued that sexual gratification is not a legal element of harassment. If it were, legal experts note, men could effectively harass women and then plead innocence by saying they did not enjoy it.
“When I tell people about that ruling, they laugh out loud,” said Carol Sobel, an ACLU lawyer who is handling the female officer’s lawsuit along with many others brought by alleged harassment victims. “No one can believe it.”
Sexual harassment and discrimination in the Police Department were highlighted by a series of reports in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1987, internal LAPD studies found that more than 75% of female police officers said they had been the subjects of sexist comments from colleagues on the job. Seven out of 10 female officers said they did not believe they were judged based on their abilities, and more than half told investigators that they had male partners who made unjustifiably negative remarks about their performance.
Those reports were reviewed by the top supervisors of the department. But in 1991, the Christopher Commission concluded that nothing had been done in response to the reports.
In addition, the commission said the department was riddled with “widespread and strongly felt gender bias.” Its report cited interviews with training officers and excerpts from “blatantly sexist messages” sent over LAPD computers.
The latest attempt to address the difficulties faced by female police officers came last fall, when the Women’s Advisory Council to the Police Commission completed its study of women in the department and warned that significant problems remained. Since then, its authors have hailed a few steps by Chief Williams, but they say more aggressive action is needed.
“This audit is the first thing that they have really done,” said Katherine Spillar, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a co-chair of the Women’s Advisory Council. “But this is a problem that has gone unaddressed for years. Sexual harassment has been sanctioned by the leadership of this department.”
Problems and perceptions of gender bias and sexual harassment in the department have altered working relationships, imposing new standards on a traditionally male work force as women have broken into new areas.
Some male officers complain that they are being held to politically correct standards of behavior even as some female officers worry that their tolerance of inappropriate conduct has inadvertently encouraged that conduct to continue.
“You have people who are blatant harassers and have been for years and years,” said Sgt. Carol Aborn, who has been with the LAPD for more than 10 years and is a former president of the Los Angeles Women’s Police Officers Assn. “Nothing has been done about them for all that time.”
Partly, Aborn added, that is because many women have been unwilling to make complaints, either because they fear retaliation or because they have acquiesced to feeling uncomfortable at work.
Caught between those choices, some have chosen to leave.
Pamela Roberts spent 10 years as an LAPD officer before leaving last summer to become a commander in Perris, Calif. Roberts finally left, she said, in part because she was tired of the racism and sexism that she encountered within the LAPD.
Rightly or wrongly, many female officers believe retaliation is common.
“Many of the women I represent feel like they’re victimized twice,” said Sobel, the ACLU lawyer. “First by the harasser and then by the disciplinary system.”
One sergeant, who asked that her name not be used, said working conditions for women have improved during her 13 years on the job, but she recounts incidents in which her male colleagues made her uncomfortable. Officers screened porno movies in the station, posted sexually explicit pictures of women on the walls, forced kisses on her and occasionally failed to back her up when she called for help. She never filed a complaint about any of those incidents.
“You have to survive out there,” said the sergeant, who estimates that 90% of LAPD harassment goes unreported. “You need them.”
In the far-flung reaches of the LAPD, there are a few areas that some women say they have learned to dread. Chief among them is the West Los Angeles station.
In the early 1980s, West Los Angeles was home to a pair of informal groups of male officers: The first called itself PALS--short for “Police Against Lousy Supervision.” It was followed by creation of a second, MAW, an acronym for “Men Against Women.”
Some male officers who knew of the groups say they were merely jokes, that no genuine hostility was directed either at supervisors or at women. But after previous investigations turned up little, the LAPD last year launched what department sources say is the most aggressive effort it has ever undertaken to root out the problem of sexual harassment in the ranks.
Starting last fall, a lieutenant and three detectives began pulling West Los Angeles officers aside and conducting interviews to assess the working conditions at the station. What emerged from four months of that process and more than 100 interviews, according to department sources, was a still-unreleased portrait of a police station beset by harassment: of officers who openly disparaged the abilities of their female counterparts, of training officers who would go for an entire shift with barely a word spoken to their female trainee, of openly racist and sexist remarks and, in at least a few instances, of male officers failing to come to the aid of females.
“I would get in a patrol car and the fellow would lean over and say, ‘I don’t want to hear from you. I don’t believe you belong here. Just sit there and be quiet,’ ” said one female LAPD officer who worked at West Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. “And that’s just what I did.”
Already, two veteran officers, Stephen McNicholas and Jay A. Varga, have been transferred out of West Los Angeles. A personnel complaint obtained by The Times last month accused the pair of making sexist remarks and of failing to come to the aid of female officers on two separate occasions. Department sources say Internal Affairs now is investigating whether to bring internal charges against those two officers, both of whom vehemently deny any wrongdoing. Those same sources say that other officers and their supervisors also are under investigation to determine whether they created or tolerated a working environment hostile to women.
At West Los Angeles, some officers accuse LAPD management of orchestrating a “witch hunt,” against McNicholas and Varga under the guise of a management audit.
“A lot of what gets described as sexual harassment is really just sniveling,” said one male West Los Angeles officer who asked not to be identified. “Management is just trying to punish Jay and Steve. The rest of this is just a smoke screen.”
In an interview, Williams declined to discuss the West Los Angeles audit in detail, but he acknowledged that sexual harassment and bias are longstanding problems within the LAPD, as they are in many law enforcement agencies. Williams pledged to attack those issues and create a working environment where women need not be afraid.
Williams added that he intends to create a department ombudsman for investigating harassment and bias complaints. He said he will propose creation of that unit “very shortly,” and promised to invest it with broad investigatory powers separate from the Internal Affairs structure.
Greenebaum said such steps should demonstrate the LAPD’s new resolve to thwart harassment.
“The department has been static along these lines for so long,” Greenebaum said. “That is not the case anymore. . . . This is a change in the way the department is being run, and it’s coming from the top.”
Friction on the Force
Despite repeated warnings and lawsuits, documents and interviews show that the Los Angeles Police Department continues to grapple with sexual harassment.
Gender-related harassment complaints in 1993 Assaults: 5 Comments: 25 Comments, touching: 2 Pictures/videos: 4 Touching: 7 Note: Of the 43 complaints, 29 were lodged in the first six months of the year. Department officials say that is evidence that the LAPD’s efforts to root out the problem are beginning to yield results. But critics say the drop reflects a lack of confidence among women officers that sexual harassment will be properly investigated and disciplined.
Women’s advocates argue that the best way to protect female officers from harassment is to build a genuinely diverse work force. They are pushing for 44% of the LAPD’s annual hires to be women, a figure that mirrors the percentage of women in the working population. Although the LAPD is far from achieving that goal, it has made significant progress in adding women to the ranks.
* 1980 officers
Female: 178 (2.6%)
Male: 6,574 (97.4%)
* 1981 officers
Female: 275 (4.1%)
Male: 6,612 (95.9%)
* 1982 officers
Female: 329 (4.8%)
Male: 6,553 (95.2%)
* 1983 officers
Female: 431 (6.2%)
Male: 6,562 (93.8%)
* 1984 officers
Female: 491 (7%)
Male: 6,509 (93%)
* 1985 officers
Female: 565 (8%)
Male: 6,493 (92%)
* 1986 officers
Female: 572 (8.2%)
Male: 6,367 (91.8%)
* 1987 officers
Female: 642 (9%)
Male: 6,477 (91%)
* 1988 officers
Female: 842 (11.1%)
Male: 6,764 (88.9%)
* 1989 officers
Female: 956 (11.9%)
Male: 7,053 (88.1%)
* 1990 officers
Female: 1,119 (13.2%)
Male: 7,351 (86.8%)
* 1991 officers
Female: 1,114 (13.6%)
Male: 7,088 (86.4%)
* 1992 officers
Female: 1,081 (13.9%)
Male: 6,686 (86.1%)
* 1993 officers
Female: 1,161 (15.1%)
Male: 6,511 (84.9%)
Source: Los Angeles Police Department documents