Saturday June 05, 2004

City takes preventive steps following trial Resource team, investigator added after jury awarded female officers $3.5 million.

By Darleene Barrientos

GLENDALE - Alleged bad behavior by a few employees resulted in a sexual-harassment lawsuit against the city, so officials are taking steps to prevent the issues that prompted the lawsuit from arising again.

If similar problems do occur, city leaders say they want to make sure the problems are dealt with swiftly and fairly.

City officials still dispute that three female Glendale Police officers suffered harassment, discrimination and retaliation. But after a three-month trial and a jury award of $3.5 million to the women a year ago, the allegations of a hostile work environment are hard to ignore.

A jury sided with Glendale Police officers Katie Frieders, Renae Kerner and Jamie Franke on June 2, 2003. After a slew of post-trial motions, including one successful bid to lower a plaintiff's award and an unsuccessful request for a new trial, the city decided to appeal the verdict in September, but has not filed it with the Court of Appeals.

City officials like City Atty. Scott Howard think the verdict is excessive. But the jury's findings were a sign that steps needed to be taken to make sure the city's work environment was free of hostility, discrimination, harassment and retaliation, he said. Those steps included creating a team of attorneys to listen to the grievances of police employees, and deciding harassment or discrimination complaints should be looked into by an impartial investigator from the city's audit division.

Brad Gage, the attorney who represented the officers, said he does not believe the city's remedies are sincere.

"Whatever actions the city is taking to prevent discrimination, harassment, or retaliation is doing nothing," he said.

Gage compared it to buying Band-Aids without adhesive.

"It does nothing to protect, and it's falling off," he said. "You're just spending money needlessly without protecting anything."

The first step the city took was to establish a temporary police employee resource team, made up of two city attorneys and an outside lawyer. The lawyers were available at set office hours for police employees who had concerns or complaints about alleged harassment and retaliation at the department.

The team initially was going to be available for 45 days, after which a report would be compiled for the city attorney and City Council's review. Because of the response from police employees, the team continued to work for another 60 days. More than 30 people contacted the team, officials said.

Howard declined to discuss what issues were brought to light. A report is being drafted for the City Council; Howard did not know whether it would be made public.

The response to the team was a pleasant surprise, he said.

"It shows a comfort level, that people are willing to talk. Many times people don't talk about issues for any number of reasons," he said. "Our goal is that, if there are problems, it's better to get them out and work through them now."

Members of the department were glad to have a chance to talk to someone, Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams said.

"There were people on both sides of the organization that were upset by the trial and some of the things that were said at the trial," Adams said. Testimony during the trial discussed inappropriate relationships between officers and their supervising sergeants and alleged incidents of retaliation.

"Based upon that, it was a good opportunity for us to level the playing field and [see] if there were any concerns or issues that hadn't been dealt with. And if they hadn't, that they would be looked into and investigated ... It kind of allowed for a venting, if you will, of the emotions that were pent up on both sides of this issue," Adams said.

In January, the City Council also approved establishing a citywide investigative unit to handle future complaints of harassment and discrimination in any department. The council approved an annual budget of $135,000 to pay the salary of a senior investigator, cover operating costs, and hire contractors for investigative services. The new unit will be run by the city's audit division. In the past, investigations were handled by the managers of the departments from which they originated.

Adams also plans to bring a proposal to the City Council to set up a wellness program within the Police Department. Such a division would require a full-time psychologist and an outside consultant to monitor the physical health of police employees. The psychologist would counsel individual police personnel, as well as conduct training classes for the department.

"We're going to present both of these together under the umbrella of a wellness program ... to try to take care of the overall needs of the department, both sworn and civilian," Adams said. "We think those things will go a long way toward helping our employees in a variety of ways."

Unless certain people are sent to the psychologist, the effort will be wasted, Gage said.

"Who's going to be sent there? The ones doing the harassment? If they are not, then basically all you have is a situation where the department is failing to take the corrective action necessary to stop the harassment. They're just treating the symptoms of it without treating the root of the problem," Gage said.

The department's structure is also shifting so officers and civilian workers can build better relationships with their mangers, Adams said. The promotion of so many officers recently was partly brought on by retirements. It is also an attempt to allow administrators to work more closely with officers in the field, he said.

"My goal with that is to try to do everything possible to have a balanced workload so that management can be very close to line-level personnel and very involved in day-to-day activities, to the point where there's increased trust and an increased relationship working between management and line level. And I think that's working pretty effectively," he said.