The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which quietly has spent nearly $19 million over the last decade responding to a single sexual discrimination lawsuit, now is making its first serious attempt not only to hire and promote women, but also to fight sexual harassment within its ranks.
The department, which lost the lawsuit, for years made scant effort to comply with court orders on such issues. Instead, the department chose to contest rather than compromise at nearly every juncture--while costs rose significantly, according to interviews, court records and department documents.
As a consequence of its resistance, the department, which unsuccessfully appealed the 1980 case to the state Supreme Court, now operates under a negotiated settlement--a consent decree--along with a set of judgments and orders so complicated that they fill a binder 4 inches thick. Despite having passed an exam for a promotion and being placed on the list of eligible candidates for sergeant, the female deputy who filed the discrimination lawsuit was never promoted.
The sheriff’s case can be viewed as a cautionary local example for the Los Angeles Police Department, which faces a much wider-ranging consent decree to forestall a civil rights suit by the U.S. Department of Justice: Costs can skyrocket while department policies and practices can stall if the department digs in its heels.
“Some will say an LAPD consent decree will be great. It will force the department to do this or that,” said Dennis M. Harley, the plaintiff’s attorney in the sheriff’s case. “But the devil is in the details and the devil is in the enforcement and the monitoring. This [the Sheriff’s Department consent decree] has been a failure.”
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called the costs and lack of progress in the sheriff’s case obscene.
“It’s an absolute embarrassment,” Yaroslavsky said. “The bottom line in all of this is, you had a largely sexist world of law enforcement. The changes that were called for in the case were resisted by the law enforcement establishment.”
But the Sheriff’s Department dealing with the case today is different from the one that fought it for most of the last decade. During much of that time, the department was run by Sherman Block, who fiercely resisted most of the changes required by the court. Block, who died two years ago during his reelection campaign, was said to be so angry about the case that he forbade the plaintiff’s name to be mentioned in his presence.
Acceptable Promotion Test Still Lacking
When Sheriff Lee Baca was elected to succeed Block, he knew he had a serious problem with the consent decree. He had no idea, however, nor did the county Board of Supervisors, how large and unwieldy the problem had become:
* The department, its lawyers and consultants have yet to develop an acceptable promotion test--one that does not discriminate against any group--for deputies who want to become sergeants. In fact, the department has given only two promotion exams in 14 years, relying on years-old lists of eligible candidates and attempting to meet a court order requiring that 25% of the promotions go to women, who make up less than 15% of the department.
* The department transferred only a small number of women to specialized positions, such as detectives, field training and narcotics officers, despite a court order requiring that women hold 25% of those jobs. Department officials still say that “most women” prefer working in the courts or the jails, where more regular work schedules can better accommodate families and other concerns.
* Despite the consent decree, the department still does not have a policy outlining its stand against sexual harassment or its procedures for dealing with it. A new policy, dubbed the policy of equality, however, is being “fine-tuned,” the department’s lawyers say, and should be completed within the next few months.
Over the years, lawyers--their expensive expert witnesses in tow--have returned repeatedly to court, arguing over the various orders. The department has been threatened by the court with daily fines of as much as $10,000 for failing to comply with some of those orders.
A cost breakdown of the case shows that the bulk of the $18.9 million went to attorneys and consultants retained by the county. Richard Biddle, the independent monitor appointed to oversee the case, received about $7.8 million; Harley, the class counsel, received about $6.8 million but used a portion of it to pay his own hired experts. Susan Bouman Paolino, the former deputy who filed the case, received roughly $200,000.
Biddle, among many others inside and outside the department, cringes at the costs.
“They’ve been spending 100 times more than they should to try to get these things done,” Biddle said. “If they had worked together in 1989, they could be out from under this thing. If you fight everything, it runs up the costs and makes us have to do things over again. It just hasn’t been a work-together atmosphere.”
Baca, however, plans to change all that. He has hired a new, politically savvy law firm and created a new internal unit devoted solely to handling the court orders. Those employees report directly to the undersheriff.
He ordered speedier internal investigations into sexual harassment and discrimination complaints after he was publicly upbraided by county supervisors, particularly Gloria Molina, who has sharply criticized Baca over the department’s handling of the cases. The sheriff also increased the size of academy classes to accommodate more incoming deputies.
The sheriff himself is attempting to set a strong no-tolerance attitude against discrimination of any kind in the department. At Baca’s request, the numbers and status of sexual harassment cases are posted prominently in his executive conference room.
“My strategy is essentially to comply with the court orders, change the bureaucracy, change the department’s culture and get serious here,” Baca said in an interview. “I know that it is important to do this the right way. I don’t believe in coming in with a quick fix. I want a good-faith effort and I want systemic change in the Sheriff’s Department.”
Baca’s goal: for his lawyers to return to court next year with the tests, policies and procedures needed to prove that the department no longer needs to operate under court supervision.
But although the sheriff has ambitious plans, it is unclear whether the lawyers and consultants involved can agree on any number of the thorny legal issues still unresolved. Even more daunting is the question of whether the sheriff can change the department’s culture.
Sexual harassment and retaliation complaints continue apace in the Sheriff’s Department. Los Angeles County taxpayers have paid out more than $3.4 million over the last five years to settle sexual harassment cases in the department, records show.
Those cases don’t appear to be decreasing. A review of internal department records shows many similar kinds of sexual harassment over the years. In one recent case, a deputy complained that an e-mail was sent over the department network alleging her “love interest” in a deputy assigned to another bureau.
In another, several deputies allegedly spread false rumors that a civilian worker in the jail was sleeping with male deputies, and domestic violence pamphlets were placed in her mailbox for two or three weeks.
In other cases, a female deputy says a captain retaliated against her because she testified against him in another sexual harassment case, and a jailer from another department alleges that a deputy made several sexual comments to her when she escorted inmates to court.
‘Morale Problem’ Called Side Effect
A damaging side effect of the years of wrangling, observers and department officials say, has been the effect on deputies themselves. Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the supervisors, said in a report that the promotional and legal bottleneck has become “an intractable morale problem.”
Indeed, about 5,000 deputies, some of whom had been working for the Sheriff’s Department as long as 10 years, went for eight years without the opportunity to take a test for advancement.
The department finally gave an exam in 1998--at the Los Angeles Convention Center to accommodate the thousands of deputies who showed up.
Still, however, many deputies believe the testing process is unfair. They complain that promotions are subjective and amount to reverse discrimination.
“We’re getting sergeants who have either worked at Sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau, where they know everyone, or they’re female,” said one deputy who declined to be identified but who has worked for the department for nearly 15 years without a promotion.
“You have guys who have been pushing radio cars for 19 years or more. I work with a female who can’t run a license plate--and she’s going to be promoted first.”
But to the women who supported Paolino’s suit, department observers and even the sheriff himself, the only way to address the department’s cultural problems is by actively hiring, retaining and promoting women.
“My belief is that we need more women in the department than we have now,” Baca said. “Women are excellent leaders, as are men. But this organization has been dominated by men historically. The men and women in the department must share in [solving] the problems of the past.”
Paolino, who left the department and is now an attorney, agrees with the sheriff, but takes a less optimistic view of the future.
“There are some people now in the department who I think truly recognize the need for change,” she said. “But I think it’s going to take a long, long time . . . to change the mentality that is still very, very prevalent.”
Women make up just 12% of all officers in the largest 100 law enforcement agencies in the country, according to a study by the National Center for Women and Policing. The LAPD is about 18% women.
Courts throughout the country are increasingly siding with female defendants in sexual harassment cases, studies show. Women have won more than a third of the lawsuits filed against their departments, according to a survey by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police.
To combat these problems, many say, more women need to be hired by law enforcement agencies.
The Sheriff’s Department recently has made some strides. An academy class that began last month had 31% women; another class earlier this year was 40% women.
“We’re trying to increase the number of women in the academy so that we can move women who are ready to be promoted,” said Douglas R. Hart, an employment law attorney with Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, the firm hired by the department a year ago. “Our goal is to increase the number of women in the department and throughout the command structure.”
D. Jan Duffy, a consultant retained by the county, has interviewed deputies and commanders and believes that only cultural change will end discrimination against women.
That, she says, “requires commitment by more than just the single chief executive. . . . It takes four or five top executives who are equally committed and . . . their commanders. It has to go all the way through the whole organization.”
PLAINTIFF NOW A LAWYER
Susan Bouman Paolino, at center of landmark harassment case, sues county again. A16