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Three female officers sue city for discrimination

Thursday, September 18, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

Three female Austin Police officers, in three separate but related cases have filed suit against the City of Austin alleging gender discrimination while employed by the Austin Police Department. Linda Ponder, Deborah Sawyer and Mary Hesalroad all allege discrimination stemming from Commander Calvin Smith’s replacing Commander Larry Oliver at the APD Training Academy.

 

Sergeant Linda Ponder, 52, is a 23-year veteran of the Austin Police Department. At the time of the alleged discrimination, she had been posted at the Training Academy in the Learned Skills Unit since November 2006. Her suit alleges that in Sept. 2007, Lieutenant Randall Pasley was placed “in the supervisory position over the Advanced Officer Training division.”

 

As a result, Ponder alleges that she was “treated disparately based on her gender and harassed by Lieutenant Pasley. About that time is when Commander Smith replaced Commander Oliver at the Academy. Ponder alleges that Commander Smith “was fully aware of the discriminated [sic] against Plaintiff and condoned such action by failing to properly supervise.” Her suit also alleges that Lt. Pasley told Ponder that he had the full support of Commander Smith.

 

Ponder alleges when she “openly expressed her concerns that Lieutenant Pasley was continually harassing her by electronic email communications and verbally berating her due to her gender,” to the Austin Police Association Pasley retaliated against her. On Nov. 21, 2007, Pasley allegedly brought Ponder into his office to issue a “Memorandum regarding Performance Counseling,” where Ponder’s suit alleges he said she “demonstrated a ‘lack of leadership,’ among other belittling comments.”  On Dec. 12, she alleges “ongoing discrimination and retaliation,” and claims she was threatened with being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan in the “near future.”

 

The suit claims that on Dec. 17, Ponder met with Chief of Police Art Acevedo and that by Jan. 5, the resolution from that grievance hearing had not been provided to her. Two days later, a final grievance meeting was held where Assistant Chief Leo Enriquez told her the grievance was denied although she could transfer if she wished.

 

Lt. Deborah Sawyer, 55, is a 24-year veteran of the APD with more than 50 commendations and awards in her file. She was assigned to the Academy in April of 2007. When Smith replaced Oliver in September, Sawyer alleges the new commander “immediately began to scream and yell…berating her within hear shot [sic] of any cadet or officer.” She alleges he “would use a condescending tone, point his finger towards [Sawyer’s] face, continually ask questions and intentionally interrupt [Sawyer] when attempting to respond.”

 

The suit also alleges that within a week and half of Smith’s arrival at the Academy he had told Sawyer “if your performance doesn’t improve you need to find another place to work.” By Oct. 13, she alleges someone already had told her that Smith was looking to replace her for cadet training.

 

On or about Oct. 19, Sawyer alleges she expressed her concerns to Enriquez about the “belittling and the embarrassing comments that all amounted to gender discrimination by Commander Smith.”  She alleges that Enriquez “seemed to be already aware of the situation” though he failed to take any action.  A few days later, on Oct. 24, Enriquez allegedly called Sawyer to tell her she was being replaced. 

 

A few days later, she met with the Austin Police Association, and by Nov. 30, she had filed a grievance with Acevedo. Her suit claims she informed Acevedo that Smith had addressed the “entire cadet class and ten other employees” and had said, “When I came here 33 years ago, we hired big ol’ boys, and now we hire people of smaller stature, we even hire women. And anybody can have a mustache, even a woman.” Sawyer alleges Enriquez was present during this address.

 

Sawyer and Acevedo met Dec. 17 for a grievance hearing, though there was no immediate action out of the meeting. By Jan. 7, 2008 Smith, Pasley and Enriquez met with Sawyer for a final grievance meeting where Enriquez informed her that the grievance was denied and allegedly stated, “[I]f you want to move [transfer], now is the time do it.”

 

Sgt. Mary Hesalroad, 51, is an 18-year veteran of the force with 42 commendations in her file. Hesalroad alleges she had discussed with Sgt. Andrew Michael swapping assignments out of Internal Affairs, where she served, and into the Training Academy where Michael was stationed, pending appropriate approval. Sawyer and Commander Larry Oliver, along with Chief Acevedo and Assistant Chief Enriquez approved Michael’s transfer.

 

When Smith replaced Oliver in September, he revoked the transfer. Although he allegedly told Hesalroad this was because he “did not want to lose experienced people at the level of sergeant and up,” Smith would later transfer Sawyer out of the Training Academy. 

 

Hesalroad alleges in mid-December she became aware of a conversation Smith had with Oliver in private about the potential transfer.  Smith had allegedly asked, “What kind of message would that be sending?” in reference to Sawyer, Hesalroad and Ponder – all three lesbians – in the Training Academy. By Jan. 21, 2008, Hesalroad filed a complaint with Commander Charles Johnson describing the gender discrimination.

 

In the wake of that complaint, Chief Acevedo placed Commander Smith on an Agreed Temporary Suspension from March 18 – April 6 for violating department polices.  On March 26, Ponder filed an Internal Affairs Complaint against Lieutenant Pasley, Commander Smith and Assistant Chief Enriquez. The Police Monitor’s office said that “no policy violations” had occurred. Commander Oliver was placed on Indefinite Suspension for “violating department policies” that required him to report suspected misconduct. Oliver later appealed his effective firing and was reinstated.

 

All three are seeking compensatory damages (emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, and mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life and other non-pecuniary losses). In addition the plaintiffs want attorneys fees and an injunction to prevent future discrimination against women employees.

 

The Austin Police Department and the City of Austin declined to comment on the ongoing suit, and attorneys for the three women did not return calls Wednesday afternoon.

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