Female cops obey a code of silence

Published Aug. 20, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

The day word spread that Tampa's police chief had been accused of sexual harassment, female officers on the force frantically channel-surfed through TV reports, hoping for any nugget of news.

For some, the reaction was disbelief. Others, though surprised by the accused, weren't surprised by the accusations.

Officer Lee Pope had publicly alleged that Chief Bennie Holder held up her career because she wouldn't have sex with him. Holder adamantly denied it.

Now two weeks old, the case has reminded female officers of a disturbing reality they don't like to discuss, even with each other: Sexual harassment is alive and well for women who try to penetrate the macho world of the Tampa Police Department.

"It's hard for a female, if she's not used to the good ol' boy system, to survive here," said Cpl. Karen Pullaro.

As Sgt. Diane O'Connor, a 17-year veteran, put it: "I'd think anybody who's been here any length of time has one or two stories to tell."

But even O'Connor and other female officers who think Holder is innocent of the allegations say they feel torn. Many say they don't want to accuse another woman of lying about something as serious as sexual harassment. Just by making a complaint, they say, Pope already has been ostracized and labeled a troublemaker.

Still, being an officer means working for and around men, and most at the Tampa Police Department aren't a problem, female officers say.

Certainly, it's no secret that female rookies are considered "fresh meat." Or that the "cop talk" that helps police swallow a daily diet of criminals and their damaged victims often deteriorates into crude, sexual jokes. But female officers say they stomach both to fit in at a job where some men still think women don't belong.

If men suddenly feel overly self-conscious about what they say around female co-workers, female officers can no longer hope to blend in as "one of the guys."

And if supervisors (who are usually men) feel they can no longer have closed-door meetings or friendly relationships with female co-workers, some women worry they could be cut off from important networking that leads to the upper ranks.

"If I need to talk to (the chief), I don't want to think I have to have a witness where a man wouldn't," said Sgt. Brenda Stanley.

Several officers said they can't fathom the accusations that Holder, widely regarded as a shy but personable man, grabbed Pope's breast and asked her for kisses.

"I've never even seen Chief Holder joke about anything," Stanley said. "It's just not part of his personality to be disrespectful or out of line."

Holder's case aside, the department unquestionably has had problems.

Since 1989, 26 sexual harassment or discrimination complaints have been filed against Tampa police. Of those, 12 resulted in discipline.

Most female officers say cases serious enough to report would involve unwanted touching or sexual advances from supervisors who threatened their careers if they refused.

But they also say written complaints don't tell the real story. Usually, female officers who feel sexually harassed simply ask to be switched to another squad or supervisor. The top brass, eager to avoid a public scandal, happily oblige. Not unless all else failed, many female officers say, would they go public with a complaint.

"You don't have to deal with anything you don't want to deal with, but you have to understand it is a male-dominated profession and department," said Sgt. Jane Castor. "If anything ever happened to me like that, and I couldn't handle it, I'd have evidence like a tape that showed the harassment."

Without physical evidence, sexual harassment complaints often end up unsubstantiated, with one person's word pitted against another's. Co-workers get dragged in as witnesses to what can be embarrassing incidents.

At best, a woman who files a complaint will find co-workers, including other women, shying away from a "malcontent." At worst, officers say, she can push the emergency button on her radio and find her back-up slow to arrive. And in an organization run on a military-like chain of command, a woman seen as bucking authority can find her police career quickly stalled.

Suffering in silence

Ask Pullaro what it's likes to be a woman in the Tampa Police Department, and she has an immediate answer: "Hell." In 17 years, Pullaro said, she has been sexually harassed three times, twice by male sergeants who retaliated against her when she refused to date them. She said another sergeant who previously had been accused of sexual harassment belittled her and made jokes about her to other men in the squad.

She said she never filed a complaint. "I complained in my own way," Pullaro said. "I asked for a transfer, like "Just get me away from this jerk.' "

After she got a new supervisor, Pullaro said, a written complaint wasn't worth it. "Why bother?" she said. "I might not be believed, or they might not do anything to him. You see what is done to others, and you think, "I'll look like a fool or a troublemaker.'


O'Connor said she doesn't consider sexual harassment a serious problem, but she recalled her rookie year, when her sergeant kept showing up at her apartment to ask her out. Another supervisor finally persuaded him to leave her alone, she said.

Seven years ago, she faced a more subtle problem: sexual discrimination. As a patrol sergeant, her lieutenant wrote her up for "ludicrous things," like laughing in the hallway and talking to the secretary. Unlike the male sergeants, O'Connor said, she had to ask permission to go upstairs at headquarters.

"He was from the old school who thought women didn't belong here," she said.

When her captain dismissed her concerns, O'Connor filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She withdrew it after the department agreed to give her a different supervisor.

"To me, it just wasn't worth the battle," O'Connor said. "All I wanted was to not have to report to that moron. Maybe it was a cop out, but I had to do what was best for me."

The men stick together

Officer Marilyn Lee said she knows other Tampa police officers think of her as a loudmouth troublemaker. She said that's because she filed a federal complaint in 1991 against Holder, who was a major, then-deputy police Chief Curtis Lane and then-Sgt. Chester Copeland.

Lee alleged that Copeland and Lane retaliated against her after she refused to date them. She accused Holder of sexual discrimination because he transferred her to another patrol district so she wouldn't have to work with her ex-husband. Lee said it was always women who got transferred when police couples broke up.

After she filed the complaint, Lee said, other officers stopped talking to her.

"It's still a brotherhood," said Lee, a 13-year officer who continues to work on patrol to keep building toward her 20-year pension. "The men stick together . . . People get afraid to talk to you. They think, "She made a complaint, so I have to be careful of what I say around her.' "

The EEOC found that Tampa police did wrongly transfer women more often than men when couples no longer wanted to work together. The sexual harassment complaints against Lane and Copeland were not substantiated and were dismissed after Lee settled with the city for $1,800 to cover her attorney's fees.

Copeland was later promoted to lieutenant. He was fired in March when he was arrested on charges of sexual battery and kidnapping after a 22-year-old woman said he raped her after a traffic stop. He pleaded innocent and is awaiting trial.

Lee is skeptical that Pope's allegations against Holder will have any effect on some male officers.

"If you look at Chester Copeland, did it (Lee's harassment complaint) change him?" she said. "He was the shining star of the police department, and he was brought up on charges of kidnapping and sexual battery. What (about) all the rotten apples?"

Rivalry, not camaraderie

After Pope's allegations against Holder hit the news Aug. 7, Lee called Pope at home. "Be strong and hang in there," Lee said she told Pope. "It will get worse before it gets better."

Last week, Pope said continuing to work at police headquarters since she made her allegations has been "rough." Did she feel any support from other female officers? She paused and said only, "I'd really rather not answer that at this point."

Regardless of whether they believe in Holder's innocence or not, female officers agree that Pope will find surprisingly little camaraderie among them.

Competition for what they see as only a few top-ranking "female slots" spurs more of a rivalry between female officers than it does any sense they should stick together, several women said. That's especially true when it comes to public complaints of sexual harassment.

"Women are kind of dealing with it on their own," said Pullaro, a 17-year veteran.

"God forbid she loses this and looks like a fool," said Pullaro, who said she believes Pope's allegations. "A lot less women will come forward."