By Debbie Siegelbaum - 08/10/11 09:45 AM EDT
U.S. Capitol Police mishandling of sexual harassment allegations against officers is stoking resentment and frustration within the force, department staff say.
Officers say upper management does not take harassment claims seriously, and alleged harassers continue to work closely with their alleged victims.
Department employees interviewed for this story described instances of female officers being singled out for extra attention and sexual advances, inappropriate comments and unwanted contact outside work. Capitol Police sources who spoke to The Hill did so on background because they feared recrimination.
They report increasing dissatisfaction with how harassment claims are handled within the force, which employs 319 female officers and more than 1,400 males.
“Females are definitely being harassed and discriminated against,” said a supervisor. “People are scared to say anything.”
Jim Konczos, the police union’s chairman, said not nearly enough is being done to fix the problem.
“While you would expect the department to take these complaints seriously, I believe they do not,” he wrote in an email.
Representatives of the Capitol Police union have raised the issue repeatedly in emails to and meetings with police management.
A July 8, 2008, letter to Chief of Police Phillip Morse from Konczos highlights complaints alleging a lax management attitude.
It addressed complaints about an officer who had insinuated that three female officers were strippers.
The officer who allegedly made the remarks was assigned other duties during the investigation. When he returned to his duties, he was presented with a welcome-back cake during a roll-call meeting, the letter said.
“This is why the complaints were filed without names, because of retaliation and intimidating tactics,” the letter said.
“The department is condoning a hostile work environment and the officers deserve better,” the letter stated. “Management needs to lead by example, and this is a poor example.”
The Capitol Police department insists, however, that every complaint is taken seriously.
“In order to respect the rights of all parties, the department declines to comment on specific cases or complaints. However, the department takes every complaint extremely seriously and the Office of Professional Responsibility and/or the Office of the Inspector General thoroughly investigate every matter in accordance with our internal directives,” Capitol Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said in an email.
“It continues to be disappointing and counterproductive to the investigative process and the mission of the department that some employees opt to address their particular issues in the media rather than proceed through the administrative and legal processes available to them and to which they have a right to exercise. We firmly support the rights of our employees, and we are confident that the results of our internal investigations are and will continue to be fair and objective and fully supported by facts of each case.”
Officers say the department’s perceived lack of action on sexual harassment claims stems from fear of bad publicity. They single out the Internal Affairs Division (IAD), charged with investigating complaints of sexual harassment, for criticism.
Calling one male supervisor’s inappropriate behavior toward a female subordinate “pervasive and disturbing,” a male officer privy to the resulting sexual harassment complaint said IAD failed to contact any of the witnesses the claimant provided who could corroborate her account of events.
“That’s kind of the general impression that most people get, is that IAD isn’t there to be an impartial investigative body,” he said.
The department declined to answer specific questions about IAD.
IAD is just one link in the chain, however, that leaves victims of sexual harassment feeling there is no recourse within the police department, sources said.
Upper management has several times declined to separate complainants from the people they accuse of harassing them, forcing victims and perpetrators into daily contact, they add.
In other instances, rather than suspending or firing an individual for poor conduct, the employee has instead been transferred to another unit or promoted.
“When something happens with an official and they do something wrong, they are like, ‘Oh, well, if we give them a promotion, they have to transfer and go someplace else,’ ” said one supervisor. “It’s just displacing the poor conduct; it’s not fixing the problem.”
The transfer or promotion of these employees is viewed as part of a larger “good old boy network” culture within the Capitol Police, which protects favored employees against claims of misconduct, said several officers.
Describing management as a tight-knit group akin to a high school clique, the supervisor said, “I don’t know if it’s a black or white thing, or male or female when it comes down to that little inner circle.”
“You have to be in that inner circle to get what you want,” the supervisor added.
This atmosphere breeds a culture of mistrust in which many victims of sexual harassment refuse to come forward for fear of inaction or retaliation, officers said.
“There’s currently four or five retaliation cases against Capitol Police because if you say something, they’ll transfer you to an assignment you don’t like, they’ll transfer your shift, they’ll make it horrible on you until you say, ‘You know what, I’m done,’ ” said a sergeant. “You have no other option than to go along with the program.”
“It is difficult to say how many [incidents] go unreported,” wrote Konczos. “One of the main factors the female officers will tell you for not filing a complaint is retaliation and how it might hurt their opportunity for advancement in the department if they came forward.”
Those who have reported claims and gone through mediation either internally or through the Office of Compliance claimed that the process was “a complete mess.”
The independent, nonpartisan agency established to resolve disputes received 48 requests for counseling within the Capitol Police in fiscal 2009, by far the largest number of any congressional agency. The agency will not say how many of these requests relate to sexual harassment.
Several female officers said they received no support from department management during arbitration, and were berated and advised their complaints had no merit.
One senior member of the department reportedly said sexual harassment was not clear unless it involved unwanted touching, according to a sergeant.
Such a case occurred in June, when Capitol Police officer Glenn Wardell Newell Jr. was charged with misdemeanor attempted sexual abuse stemming from an incident in May in which he was accused of groping a female Senate Sergeant at Arms employee.
Newell’s attorney did not return calls for comment.
With little perceived progress, employees are seeking outside assistance to help solve the departmental problem.
“I believe Congress should look into the validity of the complaints and how they were handled by the department,” wrote Konczos. “If it’s determined that the department did not follow proper protocol to handle this correctly, then Congress should intervene to make sure this does not happen again.”
A staffer on the House Administration Committee said the panel has not been asked to investigate sexual harassment in the Capitol Police, but said this was not surprising given that the issue was mainly an internal one. Lawmakers on the committee would not comment on the matter.
Several female officers are also pursuing legal recourse against the department and are being encouraged to consider a class-action lawsuit, according to sources. Four have retained attorney Annette DeCesaris for sexual and gender-based discrimination claims.
The department does require sexual harassment training for staff but could do more to improve its processes, said Joseph Sellers, a partner at attorneys Cohen Milstein, who argued a recent high-profile class-action sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart in the Supreme Court.
“There has to be some means of showing that when there’s evidence of harassment, that the employer will take it seriously, will investigate promptly and will take prompt and effective remedial action, which could include discipline against the individuals found to have committed the harassment,” he said.
“Being able to disclose that they took some action might convince people that this is something worth risking their livelihood on complaining [about],” added Sellers.
If internal measures fail, pursuing action through the federal court system can be a long and costly process that can put one’s job and income at risk, said Sellers.
But for one female officer whose sexual harassment claim was rejected, a lawsuit seems to be her last chance for justice.
“I thought that going through [department channels] was the right way to go … but it’s a waste of time,” she said. “If I had the money to hire a good lawyer, that’s the best route to go.”
Asked if her career would be torpedoed as a result, she replied, “It’s already done. My career’s already over.”