Three female deputies have filed claims of discrimination and sexual harassment against the King County Sheriff’s Office, alleging they were targets of retaliation and repugnant behavior.
The deputies liken their situation to a previous case in which the county paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by three other female deputies.
“Female officers are expected to sit back and take it when it comes to: derogatory and sexist remarks made about being a woman in law enforcement, sexual harassment in the workplace, offensive and crude remarks about women, and basic good old boy attitudes toward women in general,” one claim filed by Sgt. Diana Neff alleges.
Julie Kays, the attorney representing the women in the current and previous cases, said if the claims seeking up to $3 million each are not paid, the next step will be a new lawsuit contending the Sheriff’s Office has engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination, harassment and hostile behavior that failed to stop after the earlier settlement.
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In a statement Monday, Sheriff John Urquhart said: “As Ms. Kays knows, we are in a position where we cannot comment on active investigations or pending litigation, although she clearly doesn’t shy away from arguing her cases in the press.
“We are investigating several allegations from Ms. Kays’ clients, mostly through outside, independent investigators,” Urquhart added. “Where appropriate, I will take disciplinary and corrective action. Otherwise, we will vigorously defend ourselves in court, and only in court.”
Urquhart, who was elected in 2012, inherited the previous case and its allegations that rampant acts of sexual harassment, boorish conduct and verbal abuse were directed at three detectives in the Special Assault Unit. Without admitting liability, the county paid $1 million last year to be split evenly among the detectives.
The new claims, filed in September and last month, contend similar problems have continued under Urquhart, particularly in the Shoreline Police Department, where the Sheriff’s Office patrols under a contract.
Among multiple allegations is that female employees in Shoreline were judged on their looks and that a male sergeant in the transit unit repeatedly bragged about his sex life to a female deputy he propositioned, sending text messages to her containing photographs of a scantily dressed woman with whom he said he was having a sexual relationship.
The claims brought by Neff and Deputies Julie Blessum and Amy Shoblom each seek $2.5 million to $3 million in damages.
Kays said she most likely will file a lawsuit in December if the claims are not settled by then.
The claims allege that women have been mistreated and driven out of Shoreline under Shawn Ledford, a longtime member of the Sheriff’s Office, who took over as chief in 2012 and reports to Urquhart and Shoreline’s city manager.
Neff, a gay woman who has worked for the Sheriff’s Office since 1987, alleges her reputation was unblemished until Ledford arrived and created a hostile and discriminatory work environment for women.
During the summer of 2013, according to Neff’s claim, Ledford and his captain stated they wanted a female deputy who ran a community storefront office moved to a patrol position.
Ledford stood by and didn’t act when the captain commented that the deputy’s “hair was askew and I don’t think this is how we want to represent the Department,” Neff contends.
“The female storefront deputy was waging a battle against cancer at the time, and had lost her hair,” according to Neff’s claim. “Ledford’s captain was referring to the female storefront deputy’s wig.”
Ledford also wanted a younger, “prettier” woman on the administrative staff to replace an older woman who greeted the public, according to Neff’s claim.
When Neff and another female sergeant objected to what they viewed as unlawful reassignments of those women, Ledford made the workplace “intolerable” for them, the claim alleges.
Neff and the other sergeant met with Urquhart’s then top deputy, Anne Kirkpatrick, to express their concerns about Ledford, according to the claim.
The claim contends that Kirkpatrick told them Urquhart had this to say: Ledford and his captain were not going anywhere and that Neff and the other sergeant could either make it work or find a new assignment.
After that, “things got worse,” Neff alleges, forcing her and the other sergeant to leave Shoreline for other duties in the department.
Ledford filled both positions with men, including one who attached a poster on his door showing a male standing at a urinal holding the hand of a transgender person dressed as a female at another urinal, Neff alleges.
Overall, few female deputies work in Shoreline and it is common for male deputies to stop talking when one enters a room or to get up and leave, according to Neff’s claim.
Blessum, a Shoreline patrol deputy who also is gay, alleges that once Neff was forced out, Neff’s former unit became a place where sexual-orientation jokes “became par for the course.”
Male deputies made immature and childish jokes disparaging gays, including saying “Ewww” and “gross” when discussing a transgender suspect, her claim alleges.
With her identity openly mocked, “This causes Julie personal anguish and distress, as well as causes her to question her ability to rely on those officers who openly disparage her identity when she is responding to a call,” according to her claim.
In particular, male deputies routinely “call Julie off” when she offers to provide backup assistance, the claim says.
Previously, according to the claim, Ledford, as a captain, failed to act when he observed acts of sexual harassment and discrimination carried out by two male sergeants named in the prior lawsuit that led to the $1 million settlement.
Shoblom’s claim describes the text messages purportedly sent by a male sergeant in the transit unit, which included one of a woman wearing only an American flag.
The sergeant repeatedly subjected her to sexual harassment, including rude and crude comments, according to Shoblom, who joined the unit in November 2013.
At one point, the sergeant wanted to bet on who would cheat on their spouse first, suggesting on different occasions they could “lose the bet together,” according to Shoblom’s claim.
When Shoblom was washing her patrol car, the sergeant took a bottle of hand sanitizer and used it to draw an image of a penis on the hood, the claim says.
Her attempt to report problems was shrugged off by a captain, according to the claim.