Sex bias finally arrested in the Sheriff’s Department?

October 30, 2009 

femalecadetsNone of the young women who graduated this fall from the sheriff’s academy have met the grandmother who fought their battles, who paved the way for them to comprise 40 percent of their class for the first time in department history.

If they’ve heard of Susan Bouman at all, it’s only as the name on an aging court case.

Back in 1980, Deputy Bouman filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination after she was denied a promotion to sergeant. She won the case in 1988 and received $31,500 in back pay, plus benefits.

More important, the case led to a federally-mandated agreement—a consent decree—compelling the department to hire and promote more women and establish a state of the art anti-harassment policy. That victory was much longer in the making.

This fall, nearly two decades after Bouman’s retirement, a federal district court judge quietly lifted a major portion of the consent decree, verifying that the department has successfully put policies in place to effectively guard against sexual harassment. The so-called “equity” portion of the consent decree was the second major victory, following the creation of a gender-neutral sergeant’s exam that won court approval in 2007.

The anti-harassment victory was bittersweet for the 61-year-old former sheriff’s deputy, now known as Susan Paolino. She recalls the years of appeals and foot-dragging that preceded the strides of more recent times. “I think that they’ve made a lot of progress,” says Paolino, who retired as a sergeant in 1990 with a stress disability she attributes to years of fighting the department. “But I’m sorry it’s taken so long.”

Undersheriff Larry Waldie, who oversees compliance with the so-called Bouman decree, points proudly to the department’s harassment policy “as a model for other departments.” But he acknowledges that, for years, the department “chose to take everything to court” rather than resolve the harassment and promotion problems.

“Quite frankly,” he says, “our old way was not the right way.”

A consent decree is a voluntary but binding pact supervised by a judge, with the defendant and plaintiff agreeing to a series of remedies to correct the contested behavior. In some cases—such as the federal consent decree recently lifted at the LAPD–courts appoint third-party monitors. In this case, the judge ordered the two sides to work matters out between themselves, with the judge as the final arbiter. In all consent decrees, judges can impose sanctions, including fines.

“Everybody asks what’s taken so long,” says Paolino’s attorney, Dennis Harley. The answer, he says, is simple: In the early years of the case, sheriffs Peter Pitchess and Sherman Block “didn’t want anyone telling them what to do.”

Today, women make up nearly 17 percent of the sheriff’s sworn personnel, slightly less than the percentage of women in the LAPD. Paolino credits Sheriff Lee Baca, who assumed office in 1998, for more rapidly upending the old-boy culture.

“When he came in,” Paolino says, “the department began an effort to comply with the consent decree. Before that, they fought it tooth and nail.”

Observers and attorneys familiar with the case agree. “It was a priority for Sheriff Baca to resolve the issues under the consent decree to move the department forward,” says Abby Liebman, founder of the California Women’s Law Center and a former member of the Equity Oversight Panel, created by County Supervisors in 2002 to monitor harassment incidents and recommend discipline within the department.

In the mid-1970s, Paolino, then known as Bouman, was a young deputy who couldn’t win promotion to sergeant, despite scoring well on the exam. Harassment and discrimination were pervasive, she says, a part of the culture. Male colleagues left pornographic pictures lying around and flooded her mailbox with transfer request forms so she’d get the hint and leave.

After her internal appeals failed, she filed her lawsuit. By the time she won, she’d been promoted to sergeant, but male colleagues still behaved badly. “There was more harassment after I was sergeant than before,” she says.
The department, meanwhile, fought the judgment at the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court without success, before entering into the consent decree in 1993.

By then, Paolino had retired and started law school. She practiced gender-discrimination law in Whittier and, among her cases, successfully sued Los Angeles County on behalf of female lifeguards who’d been harassed by their male colleagues. Retiring from the law earlier this decade, she moved to San Diego County to help raise a grandchild.

Paolino says she doesn’t hear from women at the Sheriff’s Department but regards herself as a pioneer, saying her suit has “made a big difference” in the department’s gender policies and practices.

Still, two hurdles remain before the consent decree can be vacated entirely.

One concerns ending gender bias in the hiring of entry-level deputies. To increase numbers, the department is aiming at a goal of averaging 20.11 percent women for each graduating class. The department has reached that number in every class since July 2008, with two most recent graduations this fall hitting the 40 percent mark. The department also is revising the physical fitness and firearms tests to level the playing field for women.

“They seem to be working hard to get females through the academy now,” Paolino says.

The other remaining hurdle involves the hiring of women into 51 “coveted positions,” key deputy positions that can serve as stepping stones for eventual promotion to sergeant. To be certain that the job requirements don’t favor men, the department has hired outside experts to “validate” new tests for each position. Only one of the jobs has been validated so far, with a second following in a few weeks. Attorneys on both sides expect the pace to accelerate markedly next year.

In the meantime, the department’s interim goal is to have the percentage of women in those coveted positions be proportional to their overall representation in the department—currently, a lag of about two percentage points that sheriff’s officials hope to fix next year, says Capt. Larry Brogan of the Sheriff’s Labor Relations and Compliance section.

If the department remains on track, the decree could be lifted by mid 2012. For her part, Paolino is optimistic but retains the wary perspective of a battle-scarred veteran.

“I’ve got a 30 year history with this,” she says. “I was seen inside the department as a three-headed monster.”

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