Sylcox, an Overland police officer, was carrying a gun, but he didn't use it.
Nor did he immediately pick up a pen to file a formal complaint.
Sylcox was afraid -- so afraid that he remained silent for months despite near-constant harassment.
Right from the start, Miller's behavior was beyond outrageous, Sylcox alleges.
On his first day working with Miller in the department's storefront office a couple miles from headquarters, Sylcox says he was kneeling down to pick up a piece of paper when Miller grabbed his head and began thrusting his crotch into Sylcox's face. When Sylcox turned around to model a new jacket, Miller grasped his partner's hips and began grinding his gonads into Sylcox's buttocks. While leaning over to help Miller with a computer glitch, Sylcox says his partner put his finger at the bottom of his testicles and started moving his hand up his pants.
Sylcox says he would push Miller away and demand that he stop, but Miller, a lead patrolman, never got the hint. Sylcox says he tried to avoid Miller, but that often proved impossible in the small office at Overland Plaza where the two worked as Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers. Miller would walk into the restroom while Sylcox was urinating, wanting to compare penis sizes. When Sylcox was in the middle of a phone call, he alleges Miller once kissed him on the top of the head, told him that he loved him and then walked out of the office.
He says he put up with the abuse for nearly a year before finally screwing up enough courage to complain about Miller, an alleged favorite of Overland Police Chief James Herron.
Instead of solving Sylcox's problem, complaining only made matters worse, according to his attorney and court papers.
Though Miller resigned soon after the complaint was lodged (he left the police force in January 2001 and now works as a detective at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport), Sylcox and two colleagues claim they were punished after Miller was exposed. Sylcox and the two other cops, who've since resigned, recently became the latest public employees to sue Overland, a city that has lost a long string of employment-discrimination lawsuits.
In the past six years, Overland and its insurers have paid more than $1.16 million in settlements and verdicts to a half-dozen former employees. The amount is equivalent to more than 10 percent of Overland's annual budget, nearly $70 for every man, woman and child in the city of 16,838. Court records show that Overland is, by far, the most frequently sued city of its size in St. Louis County for violations of federal employment laws. Successful plaintiffs range from department heads to a laborer.
But big payouts haven't convinced city officials that they're doing anything wrong. Nor did recommendations made in 1997 by Francis Slay, a lawyer who is now St. Louis mayor, force the city to change its employee-abusing, money-losing practices.
Instead, Overland officials blame everyone but themselves.
They were by-the-book cops who didn't want to go to court.
But Sylcox sued Overland in March, alleging that police department brass first didn't do enough to stop Miller, then punished him when he complained about the harassment.
Sylcox was joined in his lawsuit by former Officer Jonathan Alves, who also alleges he was harassed by Miller, then suffered retaliation by his superiors when he spoke out.
Former Officer Clifford Gibson has also sued Overland, claiming he was driven out of the department after he refused to help torpedo Sylcox's career.
Sylcox, Gibson and Miller all worked as DARE officers in the department's community-relations division. As DARE officers, they were supposed to be models for school children and the department's public face at community meetings.
Alves was also an exemplary cop, according to former Overland Police Chief Russell Coffell, who collected at least $170,000 last year to settle his wrongful-termination lawsuit alleging he was fired for investigating reports of municipal corruption. "He's a former Marine honor guard," Coffell says. "I was very impressed with Jon. He was well-rounded. Good customer-service skills. Just a very squared-away, sharp, young man." Alves is now selling cars at a Chevrolet dealership.
None of the plaintiffs agreed to an interview -- their accounts come from written complaints and resignation letters first given to the department, then forwarded to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their attorney, Donald Murano, says Sylcox can't speak to the media because he is still employed by Overland. Gibson is frequently out of town, Murano says, and Alves doesn't want to resurrect unpleasant memories. "He is so distraught about how he was treated," Murano says. "He doesn't want to even think about it. It has truly shattered his future as to what he wanted to be."
Coffell doesn't know what to make of the allegations. Gibson was hired after Coffell left the force, but the former chief says neither Alves nor Sylcox are the sort to make up stories. "I don't know anything about Mr. Gibson, but these other two individuals, they're not rabble-rousers," Coffell says. "They're not malcontents. Mr. Alves and Mr. Sylcox are fine police officers. They were dedicated. They were committed. They're professional."
At the same time, Coffell says, he can't imagine Miller harassing a fellow officer. Miller's gift for dealing with people made him perfect for a DARE job, the former chief says. "Steve is a class act. Steve is a very polished, a very articulate, a very intelligent, professional officer," Coffell says.
"He would have shone like a diamond in a goat's ass."
But Mike Blair, a former Overland officer who left the department in 1999, saw another side to Miller, a cop who was competent but crafty when it came to climbing through the ranks.
"Miller, he's kind of like Eddie Haskell," Blair says. "He was a kiss-ass."
In other words, exactly the kind of officer who could score points with Chief Herron, who was hired to replace Coffell in 1998.
Herron didn't have many friends on the force and didn't garner respect from the rank and file, Blair says. "He was one of those guys who really didn't have any communication skills, didn't have a personality," Blair says. "Kind of like Jack Webb: 'Just the facts, ma'am.' Herron's the kind of guy [who] walks up and down the halls looking at his reflection in the glass cases. And anybody who would come up and tell him how great he was, man, they were great policemen. Miller wasn't stupid. Miller seized upon the opportunity and got his little niche in there. He used to spend a lot of time in Herron's office after hours."
Herron did not return a phone call.
The close relationship between Miller and Herron was well-known in the police department, according to the plaintiffs. In his written complaints, Sylcox says Miller routinely referred to Herron as "his daddy" and said the chief would ensure his quick promotion through the ranks.
Afraid to blow the whistle on the chief's darling, Sylcox says he put up with Miller's harassment for about three months before seeking advice. In late June 2000, he went to Sergeant Cecil Warren Meadows, his former supervisor. "Sergeant Meadows advised me during our discussion to tell Miller to stop his offending behavior, and if he does not, then I'll have to deal with the consequences of filling out an additional report," Sylcox later wrote in official complaints.
Sylcox didn't want to deal with the consequences, so he remained silent. But by November 2000, Sylcox had had enough. He confided in Alves, telling him about Miller's unwelcome advances. Alves dismissed Miller's behavior as a case of just kidding around, but he soon learned firsthand that this was no laughing matter.
A few weeks later, Alves told Sylcox that Miller had propositioned him during the annual Guns and Hoses boxing matches that pit firefighters against cops. According to Sylcox, Miller asked Alves if he could watch him have sex with a woman while masturbating over his leg, then lick his leg clean. Alves at first dismissed it as a drunken joke, but Miller a week later approached him in the parking lot of the police station and said he was serious: He wanted to masturbate on Alves' leg, then lick it.
Murano declined to provide the Riverfront Times with a copy of an internal memo written by Alves that chronicles Miller's harassment, but the attorney says the incidents described by Sylcox were the most serious cases of Miller harassing Alves. "There were [other] comments made by Lead Patrolman Miller that were offensive to Officer Alves," Murano says. "None of it, as I understand it, rose to the level of the comments at Guns and Hoses."
Sylcox now had ammunition for a complaint that would hold water, no matter what the chief thought of Miller. Here was someone else who'd been harassed. Surely now the department would have to do something. The question was, to whom should Sylcox complain?
The city's employee handbook says that any employee who is being sexually harassed should contact the city's human-resources specialist, who is supposed to bring in an outside investigator to determine the truth of the accusation. But Overland had no human-resources specialist. So Sylcox went to Captain Walter Bunt, who is the department's director of professional standards and head of internal affairs.
Bunt was incredulous.
"This is a joke, right?" Sylcox says the captain asked.
"I wish it was, Captain," Sylcox replied.
Bunt didn't have an immediate answer for Sylcox. "Maybe the three of us need to sit down with him, tell him to cut this shit out or we'll write this up," Bunt suggested. Sylcox says he told Bunt he wasn't sure what to do, but Miller made his work life intolerable. "Give me a little while to kick this around and we will make a decision on what to do," Bunt told Sylcox. Later that day, Bunt told Sylcox that the chief wanted the complaint written up.
And what was already bad turned worse.
When Sylcox turned in his formal complaint in December 2000, Bunt asked if it was OK if he waited until after the holidays to confront Miller.
Bunt and Captain Robert Morrissey also asked if there were any witnesses. Under orders to name names, Sylcox reported that Miller had also harassed Alves. In his written complaint, Sylcox also named a woman who worked in a finance office near the DARE storefront. Miller allegedly told the woman he'd fantasized about having sex with Sylcox.
While Bunt waited for the new year, Miller persisted in his pestering.
In front of another officer, Sylcox says Miller blurted out, "You should see the size of Lenny's dick." Sylcox says he told Bunt that Miller was still harassing him, but the captain changed the subject and didn't want to discuss the matter.
The next month, Bunt and Morrissey told Sylcox that Miller had denied the accusations, but was given the opportunity to say he had just been kidding, according to Sylcox's written account. That same day, Miller called in sick. He would never return to the Overland Police Department.
Sylcox says he was under strict orders to cover up the entire affair. On the day Miller was scheduled to return to work, Herron told Sylcox to take over Miller's DARE classes and to tell anyone with an interest that Miller was having unexpected family problems. That same day, Bunt and Morrissey told Sylcox they thought Miller would resign, but if he didn't quit within a few days, Sylcox would have to take a polygraph examination. Murano says the harasser was allowed to dictate the course of events while the victim suffered.
"He shouldn't have had the leisure of deciding whether he wanted to stay or not," Murano says. "You have to understand: The threat was, 'If he stays, you're undergoing a polygraph test.' The fact is, Miller continued to have the right to go or stay at his discretion and my client would suffer the consequences of either decision." Murano says a polygraph wasn't necessary. "There are other people out there," the lawyer says. "If they had done their job and investigated it thoroughly, they would have found out that other people in the department had concerns with comments made by Lead Patrolman Miller."
Four days after Miller called in sick, Herron again told Sylcox to cover DARE classes because the lead patrolman was on vacation. Sylcox says the chief sounded angry. A few days later, Corporal Dave Pauluhn told Sylcox that, on orders from the chief, he would be helping out with DARE classes. The corporal had a five-page course outline that Miller had prepared, but he wouldn't allow Sylcox to see it, saying he needed the chief's permission before giving him a copy, Sylcox alleges.
Three days later, Miller resigned. The department whitewashed the matter. At a Neighborhood Watch meeting on January 18, 2001, Morrissey told citizens that Miller had resigned from the department to take a position in private business. The money, Morrissey told citizens, was too good for Miller to pass up. The chief said the same thing when he arrived at the meeting. After the meeting, Herron and Morrissey told Sylcox that he was to repeat the company line: that Miller had quit because he was offered more money in the private sector. If he said anything else, the chief and captain said, he would be fired, Sylcox alleges.
If Miller got a higher-paying job outside government, it didn't last long. Four months after quitting, he was hired by Lambert, which had given him his first job in law enforcement in 1992. He is now earning $37,764 per year, $2,000 less than he was making when he left Overland. Airport Police Chief Paul Mason says he didn't know Miller had been accused of sexual harassment in Overland. Miller declined comment.
With Miller out of Overland, the biggest headache in Sylcox's working life had disappeared. Morrissey told him the polygraph examination was no longer necessary. Given that Miller was gone soon after Sylcox filed a formal complaint, the department appears to have acted expeditiously, according to attorney Jerome Dobson, who specializes in employment-discrimination law but isn't involved in the Overland cases.
"The employer's going to argue, 'Hey, within 60 days of the time we received the complaint, we got rid of the harasser -- that's what the law expects us to do,'" observes Dobson, who usually represents plaintiffs. "Really, the strongest action that an employer can take is to terminate or make sure the employee leaves. Who cares whether they're fired or they resign or whatever? From the point of view of providing a safe, non-harassing environment for the employee, it would seem that there is certainly an argument on the part of the employer that they've fulfilled their responsibility."
But Dobson adds that retaliation charges sometimes stand up stronger in court than whatever misconduct led to initial complaints.
And with Sylcox and his fellow plaintiffs, the end of Miller's career in Overland was only the beginning of their battle.
Like others before them, they took their fight to court.
Since 1996, Overland has lost or settled six employment-discrimination or wrongful-termination lawsuits:
· Former Police Officer Audrey Russell received $250,000 to settle her lawsuit contending she was sexually harassed by former Chief Eddy Williams, who retired in 1996.
· Theresa Carton, a former officer who claimed that the city reneged on a promise to make her a dispatcher after she developed multiple sclerosis and could no longer work the streets, got a $450,000 settlement.
· Former Public Works Director Charles Karam says he received a settlement in excess of $200,000 last year after he sued on the grounds that he was fired because he cooperated with FBI agents who were investigating municipal corruption.
· Coffell, fired after he started looking into those same allegations, says he got $175,000, although city records show it was actually $170,000.
· A federal jury last year awarded $61,223 to Kathleen Brazier, a former community-center director, in a wrongful termination lawsuit, and the judge tacked on another $21,141 in attorney fees.
· John Chalovich, a $10-per-hour laborer in the public-works department who was denied a promotion, received an undisclosed sum, also last year. He sued alleging age discrimination and retaliation from city officials after he submitted a worker's compensation claim for an on-the-job injury. "He didn't get a whole lot," recalls Karam. "Twenty-five thousand or something like that."
According to the city, insurers -- not taxpayers -- have borne most of the financial brunt. The city has destroyed records relating to the Russell and Carton cases because they are more than five years old, but records show the four cases settled or lost in 2001 cost the city $70,000 in deductibles and payments for back wages and benefits, items not covered by the city's insurance.
City budget ordinances show the city's premiums to cover mistakes made by public officials are relatively modest and stable. For the current fiscal year ending June 30, the city is paying $16,260, the budget shows. Last year, according to a line item in the city budget, the coverage cost $12,042. In fiscal year 1997, the city paid nothing, according to budget ordinances.
But the city's budget ordinances don't tell the whole story.
A copy of the city's policy that covers employment-discrimination claims shows that the city this year is paying $24,339 in premiums. Furthermore, the deductible is $25,000, ten times higher than the deductible that was in effect before the city lost or settled four lawsuits in 2001.
"They're either going to get in a situation where they cannot buy it or it's going to be just absolutely prohibitive," says an insurance professional familiar with Overland's claim history and policies. "With the claim history they have, they're basically digging their own grave."
The insurance professional, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says St. Paul Insurance last year refused to renew Overland's liability policy for public officials, forcing the city onto the excess surplus lines market for a policy to cover employment-discrimination claims. "Basically, what that is, that's companies that write high-risk policies -- the non-standard, high-risk market," he says. "It's like having three DWIs. You're not going to be written with the standard market, which is cheaper rates. You're going to be written with a high-risk company and they're going to charge you."
City Attorney Bob Herman insists that city budgets showing stable premiums are accurate. "There's no subterfuge there," Herman says. In an initial interview, Herman said the city ditched St. Paul, not the other way around. "I think the city decided to drop St. Paul because they thought they could get a better rate and because they thought they could get more control over whether cases were being settled," he said. However, after checking with the city clerk's office, Herman said the city hasn't changed insurers. "St. Paul not only didn't reject us, they renewed us," Herman says.
But city records show otherwise. A copy of the city's policy obtained under the state Sunshine Law shows that Coregis Insurance, not St. Paul, insures the city against errors made by public officials, including coverage in case of employment-discrimination lawsuits.
Former Councilman Mark Brown, a political foe of former Mayor Frank Munsch and current Mayor Bob Dody, confirms the insurance professional's account. "The insurance company refused to renew them and they had to switch off," he says. Former Councilwoman Ann Purzner also says that city budgets don't tell the whole story when it comes to Overland's insurance costs. "I know damn well our liability insurance jumped sky high," says Purzner, who left the council this spring after losing the mayoral election to Dody.
Purzner also says Herman refused to talk about the lawsuits with city council members, including what the claims had cost the city.
"When I said, 'Why did we pay Charlie Karam off?' he said, 'We can't talk about it,'" Purzner says. "I was a councilman at the time. Then they denied that we paid anything to Russ Coffell. And they denied that we paid Kathleen Brazier anything but $14,000. That's bullshit." (City records show Brazier actually received $18,366 from taxpayers and Coffel got $44,000 from the city, the portion of their judgments not covered by insurance.)
Purzner says she was a lone voice -- most of the council was aligned with the mayor and didn't want to hear about the city's personnel troubles. "I said, 'What is going on with all these lawsuits?'" Purzner says. "But we didn't even discuss it in the back room."
Council members still don't want to discuss the lawsuits, the city's personnel policies or what might be done to prevent future litigation. "I don't know anything about anything, OK?" says Councilwoman Nancy Hankins Allison. Her response was typical of seven past and present council members contacted by the Riverfront Times. With the exception of Purzner and Brown, none would discuss the lawsuits or the city's personnel practices.
Purzner says she and other council members were clueless last fall when about 40 people wearing "We Support Cliff Gibson" T-shirts showed up at a council meeting. At the time, Gibson had been off work for two months.
"I felt like a damn fool," Purzner says. "I go back and I say to the chief, 'What is this? What are you doing? Why didn't you warn me?' He said, 'We can't discuss it. Do you want to get into a lawsuit?'"
Two days after Sylcox learned about Miller's resignation, he says he got disturbing news from Alves.
During roll call, a sergeant had said that the chief wanted a supervisor at the storefront office. Miller would be replaced by another officer, and a ranking officer would eventually replace Sylcox, who would be put on street assignment.
Within a week, Sylcox was ordered to Bunt's office. Rumors were circulating about Miller's resignation and Bunt identified a former Overland cop, now working in another municipality, as the source. The cop told Bunt he'd gotten his information about Miller from Sylcox. When Bunt confronted Sylcox, Sylcox insisted he hadn't said anything out of bounds.
Murano says none of his clients are guilty of gossip. "My clients as they went through this process followed the code of confidentiality to the utmost and refused to discuss what was going on with regard to the investigations," Murano says.
A couple days after he was called into Bunt's office, Sylcox says he walked into the police-station lobby and heard the chief telling secretaries about the investigation into who was spreading rumors. To Sylcox, this was at the very least hypocritical. After all, the chief had told him just eight days earlier that internal investigations are confidential and that he would be fired if he told anyone about the probe into Miller's indiscretions.
On January 31, 2001, a few weeks after Miller resigned, Sylcox met his new partner. Officer Gibson was handpicked by the chief, winning the DARE assignment over three other officers who had applied for it, Murano says. Both officers were under strict orders from Morrissey, who told them to keep quiet about Miller or they would be fired, the plaintiffs allege.
Herron and Morrissey attended Gibson's graduation from DARE training classes and told him that his future looked bright. "While at lunch after the graduation, they [...] tell me I will be their eyes and ears and will report anything I see or hear to them directly, especially down at the DARE office," Gibson wrote last fall in his resignation letter. "They tell me if I do a good job, I will be promoted quickly."
Gibson says Herron and Bunt repeated their expectations during separate meetings with him in February 2001. "He [Bunt] tells me to watch him [Sylcox]," Gibson wrote in his resignation letter. "He states that Officer Sylcox is a liar and is not to be trusted. He tells me to watch him. Captain Bunt further states he cannot explain any further details because of an ongoing investigation concerning Officer Sylcox. Captain Bunt states he is just looking out for my best interest."
According to Gibson, Herron said much the same thing. "Chief Herron states I could be promoted from my new position very quickly," Gibson writes. "Herron states not to trust Officer Sylcox for any reason and to report anything he does directly to him. Chief Herron further states 'I'm not done with Officer Sylcox yet.'"
About the same time, Sylcox was summoned to Bunt's office and ordered to take a polygraph examination. When Sylcox twice asked the subject of the inquiry, he says Bunt twice answered, "Everything." Sylcox asked why this was necessary now that Miller was gone. He also reminded Bunt that Morrissey had told him that he wouldn't have to take a polygraph, but Bunt was adamant. The next day, Sylcox received a written order to appear for a polygraph test in one week.
The stress on Sylcox was obvious to Gibson. On the day Sylcox received his polygraph order, Gibson asked him what was bothering him. Sylcox told his partner that he had been ordered to take a lie-detector test, but he couldn't say anything more. "What is going on, you never tell me what's going on," Gibson responded. "You obviously have issues with our command staff, and they obviously have issues with you." Gibson then confessed that he had been sent to the storefront as a spy.
Sylcox contacted a lawyer, and the polygraph was canceled. When he asked Bunt why, he says the captain responded, "You got an attorney so we canceled it. That's what the chief wanted."
Gibson soon joined Sylcox in the chief's doghouse.
Two weeks after the polygraph was canceled, both officers got in trouble. A man who had allegedly been threatening elementary-school students at a bus stop complained to the department after the officers contacted him. Herron was anything but secretive about the complaint and an ensuing internal investigation, according to the plaintiffs and their attorney.
"I may be firing you guys over this," they claim Herron said in the lobby of the police station, in full hearing of secretaries, dispatchers and other officers. Gibson was talking on a telephone, but hung up when he heard the chief. The officers protested that they had not yet given statements to investigators, but the chief said that didn't matter. "I have the NAACP calling me about this incident," they say the chief told them. "It doesn't matter what is right or wrong when the NAACP gets involved."
According to Gibson, his job was never the same after he told Bunt that Syclox did nothing wrong at the bus stop. "I tell him I believe Officer Syclox is an excellent police officer," Gibson writes. "I am scolded by Captain Bunt after the interview of the above incident. He states I could have shown my leadership skills of what [sic] I reported about Officer Sylcox."
Gibson told Sylcox about his conversation with Bunt. "Now that I have advised them that you are a good officer doing your job, it seems that they are after me, too," Gibson told his partner. He asked Sylcox to level with him. And Sylcox did, telling Gibson all about Miller.
Gibson instantly understood.
"Oh my God, you blew the whistle on the chief's boy," he told Sylcox. "No wonder they are so angry."
Gibson suggested that Sylcox tell someone outside the department -- perhaps the mayor -- about Miller and the way the chief had been acting lately. Sylcox said no -- he wanted to keep his job, and loose lips were grounds for firing.
Nothing came of the bus-stop complaint, but the next month, Herron showed a keen interest in the department's annual golf tournament, which benefited the DARE program. Planning for the July event began in April. Copying from letters Miller had sent out the previous year, Gibson and Sylcox prepared 35 letters for prospective sponsors and participants. After receiving approval from their supervisor, Lieutenant Thomas Schulte, they put the letters in outgoing mail. The next day, Schulte told the officers that the chief had opened the letters and wanted some changes.
Gibson and Sylcox changed the letters according to the chief's instructions and submitted them directly to him for final approval. Three weeks passed, they say. Finally, Schulte told the two officers that the chief wanted them to fail, according to Sylcox's written complaints. Flubbing the golf tournament would provide a perfect excuse to transfer them out of the DARE unit, the lieutenant said.
The letters eventually went out and the tournament proved a big success, raising $23,000 for the DARE program, a record amount. No "attaboy"s came from the chief, who also nitpicked letters Gibson and Sylcox prepared to invite schoolchildren to a safety program.
A month after the tournament, Gibson found himself under internal investigation following an off-duty incident at Laclede's Landing that Murano describes as a barroom scuffle. No one was arrested, injured or charged. "It really wasn't as big a deal as they tried to portray it," Murano says. "They made it sound like he had violated some kind of policy by not reporting it, but it's not something he had to do."
Investigators deemed the altercation a matter of self-defense. But Gibson's career as a police officer ended the next month, in September 2001.
Sylcox, Gibson and Alves were the only Overland officers who didn't receive American flag pins for their uniforms after September 11. And Gibson got in trouble in early September after he volunteered to oversee Explorer scouts in the annual St. Ann's Day Parade on his scheduled day off.
Gibson says Schulte told him the department needed at least one DARE vehicle in the parade. Gibson got two DARE vehicles in the parade and also rode in the procession, which resulted in insubordination charges. "He was chastised for not only having more than one vehicle, but also for riding in the parade," Murano says. "What defies reason is, how could he possibly have overlooked the eight Explorers who were stationed along the parade [and] not have ridden in the parade?"
A couple weeks after the parade, Gibson ran into Mayor Dody at a restaurant. Gibson says Dody approached the table where he and his family were having breakfast and asked how things were going at work. Gibson wanted to discuss Herron; Dody suggested a meeting at his City Hall office.
The meeting never occurred. Two days after Gibson's restaurant encounter with Dody, he was ordered to turn in his badge and gun. He was required to undergo a psychological evaluation and take a drug test. Murano says there was talk of an anger-management issue. "The official line was they wanted to suspend him pending further investigation into the accumulation -- this is their contention -- the accumulation of things that had happened," the lawyer says.
Gibson remained on administrative leave for two months before he resigned on November 27, 2001, rather than sign a last-chance agreement.
In the eyes of the department, Gibson had gone from a role model to an out-of-control cop with mental problems in seven months.
Alves and Sylcox were also having problems -- aside from not getting flag pins.
In his letter of resignation dated November 20, 2001, Alves says he was twice passed over for promotions and assigned duties not given to any other lead patrol officer after he told department brass about Miller's harassment. Like Gibson and Sylcox, he says he was threatened with termination if he didn't lie about why Miller left the department and say the former lead patrolman had been wooed away from police work by private enterprise.
Alves says his supervisor ridiculed him after he complained about Miller, making sarcastic remarks about job stress and conspiracies. When he asked Herron for a shift transfer due to his supervisor's retaliatory behavior, he says the chief refused to move him. He also became embroiled in an internal-affairs investigation and charged with insubordination when he asked that his attorney be present during questions that touched on a complaint he had filed with the EEOC. He says his supervisors took away his key to a filing cabinet while allowing other officers to keep theirs.
On orders from Bunt, Alves wrote a 21-page memo in November 2001, documenting all incidents of harassment and retaliation he had experienced in the prior year. He says he was given two days to produce the memo, then told it wouldn't be investigated until after the holidays.
Alves didn't make it to Thanksgiving. "I do not see any way possible for this to be a fair and impartial investigation," Alves wrote in his resignation letter. "Anybody that stands up for their rights such as me, Lenny Sylcox and Cliff Gibson are viewed as outcasts. I personally cannot handle this any longer and have accepted a job elsewhere."
Sylcox filed an EEOC complaint on October 24, 2001, one day after Pauluhn told him that he would be losing his DARE vehicle, a brand-new Ford F-150 pickup. On orders from Herron, who threatened him with termination if he didn't comply, Sylcox, on December 4, 2001, wrote a 16-page memo recounting retaliation he'd experienced since complaining about Miller.
"The events I have had to endure over this time period I wish on no one," Sylcox wrote.
A chief who critiques letters and doesn't give flag pins to all his officers may not sound like a big deal to a layperson. But such behavior raises red flags in cop world, says Coffell, the former chief.
"I think the Chinese call it 'death by a thousand cuts,'" Coffell says. "I grew up in law enforcement. I know how things are done. When those things are done, they're done in exactly that manner. These are not coincidences. They're done to ostracize you from the group."
Murano points out that his clients had sterling work histories until the Miller matter. He says the police department had no business handling sexual-harassment complaints. That was a job for the city's human-resources specialist. At least, that's what the city's employee handbook says. The handbook also says that harassment complaints are supposed to be investigated by someone outside city government.
Darlene Hunter, hired by the city to set up a human-resources system in May 1999, lasted one year before she quit out of frustration. She's reluctant to go into detail, but leaves no doubt that the city's personnel procedures are a mess. "They don't want to comply with labor laws," she says. "That's probably the bottom line. It was my understanding that number one, I was going to be setting up a human-resources department and that I would minimize the city's liability when it came to labor-relations issues and things like that. I definitely tried. But they weren't hearing it at all.
"They want to do what they want to do."
Overland has long been on notice that its personnel practices are flawed.
In September 1997, the city retained Francis Slay to investigate Overland's work environment. The investigation was spurred by an anonymous letter purportedly written by a city worker who said Overland government was poisoned by sexual harassment and other forms of employment discrimination.
Slay and colleague Kevin K. Spradling, also a lawyer, were paid $10,800 and interviewed about 40 city employees, past and present. They concluded that Overland's work environment didn't violate federal equal-employment laws. But that didn't mean there weren't problems.
"With regard to the city's sexual harassment policy, we found it to be ineffective in enhancing employee awareness and recognition of inappropriate behavior and in deterring such conduct," Slay wrote. "We also found the investigation process and institutional response to complaints to be deficient."
Slay and Spradling recommended that the city stop assigning police to handle sexual-harassment complaints, "something they are neither equipped nor inclined to do." The attorneys also concluded that employees didn't trust the process and believed that complainants were subject to retaliation. "Complaints are handled on an ad hoc basis, leaving many employees with the impression that the outcome depends on who you are and who you know," Spradling wrote. "This, in most employees' opinions, also accounts for the utter lack of confidentiality. Complaints, including sensitive details, very quickly become public knowledge."
Slay and Spradling looked into five complaints alleging harassment in Overland workplaces. None turned into lawsuits, but complainants weren't satisfied. In all cases, complainants were never told the results of investigations. In one case, a woman who said a public-works employee had sexually harassed her was transferred to another job. Within four months of her transfer, the city filled her old position and tried to make her a part-time employee, but reversed itself and restored her hours after she hired a lawyer. She was told her charge was unfounded, even though the alleged harasser was accused of sexual harassment by a different employee the previous year and was ultimately moved to another building and given a reduction in pay.
Sexual harassment complaints investigated by Slay reached the top levels of Overland government. Two employees accused an unnamed city council member. Their supervisor, City Clerk Gail Waggoner, later complained that the councilman began harassing her once he was banned from contacting her subordinates.
The policy did not guarantee confidentiality, nor did it encourage victims to come forward, Slay and Spradling found. The policy did not clearly outline procedures for making complaints. It did not spell out investigative procedures, and it didn't state that violations wouldn't be tolerated. Employees weren't aware of the policy, hadn't received training and didn't know how to file complaints.
Flawed though it was, the city didn't follow its own policy. Department heads who were supposed to investigate complaints instead turned matters over to the police department. Any outcomes could be appealed to the mayor, but in reality, all decisions were final because the mayor and city clerk helped direct initial investigations and often dictated the result.
Slay recommended several improvements. First on the list was replacing the city's sexual-harassment policy. Slay and Spradling also suggested the city appoint an employee to handle complaints or, better yet, hire a human-resources specialist who could also organize the city's haphazard approach to personnel management and record keeping. Spradling said hiring an employee devoted to human resources would pay for itself. "Perhaps most importantly, it provides the city with a means to resolve complaints before things escalate and the complainant feels hiring an attorney is the only way to protect his or her interests," he wrote.
The city revised its procedure in response to Slay's report, but the reforms didn't last. Hunter, the former human-resources specialist, says she gave depositions for two plaintiffs.
Shortly after Slay and Spradling issued their report, Waggoner was suspended after talking about sexual harassment in a council meeting. Her attorney, Lisa Van Amburg, recalls she was speaking up for the two employees who had accused the councilman. Rather than accept the suspension, Waggoner went on medical leave and filed federal and state employment-discrimination complaints alleging sexual harassment, gender and age discrimination. After nearly 20 years as a city employee, Waggoner resigned in April 1998.
Van Amburg offered to settle the case with the city, which submitted a claim to Northland Insurance Companies, which at the time insured the city against mistakes made by public officials. Northland responded by pointing out several exemptions in its policy and recommending that the city contact its general-liability carrier. City Clerk Linda Downs says Waggoner received no settlement, but city records show taxpayers paid more than $8,300 in legal fees to handle the case.
Overland's lawyer doesn't think the city is different than any other municipality when it comes to personnel issues and employment-discrimination lawsuits.
"This is a litigious time for municipalities," says Herman, who's been Overland's city attorney for nearly 20 years. He says the number of employment lawsuits and the amount won by plaintiffs isn't unusual compared with other municipalities. "Me, personally, do I think that is out of line with what other cities' history is? No, I don't think so," he says.
"Everybody's getting sued everywhere. Unfortunately, municipalities are targets, just like doctors were targets for a long time."
Herman knows a bit about litigation. As a private attorney, he is suing the state on the theory that the University of Missouri is violating the state constitution by charging tuition. Herman, as an ACLU lawyer, also has represented the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Realm of Missouri in its effort to get the Klan's name on adopt-a-highway signs along Interstate 55.
Noting that Overland got a new mayor in 1998, Herman says employment lawsuits are to be expected when there is a change in administrations, be it in Overland or any other town. When new mayors come to power, he says, employees who lose their jobs in favor of new appointees are prone to sue. "It tends to be a time when those who get voted out of office and their supporters tend to file a lot of lawsuits against the people who obtained the approval of the voters," he says.
Not so, says Tim Fischesser, executive director of the Municipal League of St. Louis County.
"Oh my gosh," Fischesser exclaims when told the number of lawsuits against Overland and the amount plaintiffs have collected. "Most cities that size have an administrator, and I think that cuts down significantly on the problem. Usually, personnel matters are handled by someone who's been trained to handle them. It is a very tricky area of law -- obviously, one person's fairness is another person's discrimination."
Patronage employees rarely file wrongful-termination lawsuits when new political leadership takes office in the county's 92 cities, Fischesser says. "I would say about once every five years it happens around here," he says. "It's known within the city-administration field that when their contract's up and a new administration's in place that the contract may not be renewed. It's a professional liability of that particular profession, and they know it."
Furthermore, fewer than half of the employment lawsuits filed against Overland since 1990 have come from plaintiffs who lost their jobs within two years after Dody took office in 1998. Former mayor Munsch had been in power since the mid-1980s.
A review of federal employment-discrimination lawsuits shows that Overland, the county's eleventh-largest city, is in a class by itself. Since 1990, eleven people have sued Overland for violations of federal labor law. The other 19 most-populous cities in the county were sued a total of 19 times for employment discrimination, and no single city was sued more than three times.
When someone sues Overland for employment discrimination, odds are they'll walk away richer. The city has won just two of the eight federal employment lawsuits decided since 1990, and the unsuccessful ones weren't decided on their merits. Rather, judges dismissed those lawsuits, both alleging racial bias, because plaintiffs had missed filing deadlines. In the only case that went to trial, Brazier prevailed even though the former community-center director was out of work barely one month before finding a higher-paying job.
Herman blames everyone but the city. "For one reason or another, the insurance company decided to settle rather than fight," he says. "Cities have to do things for reasons of enforcing their ordinances and insurance companies want to minimize their liability and don't want to take any risks."
Gerard Noce, the attorney who negotiated last year's settlements on behalf of the city, declined to discuss the cases in any detail, citing confidentiality agreements. "They were compromise settlements," Noce says.
While insurance has protected taxpayers, Herman blames insurers for the city's losing record. "The city doesn't like it when cases get settled against the city's wishes," he says. "The amount doesn't matter, whether it's a dollar or $10 billion. When you get insurance companies that force, in one way or another, a city to go against their ordinances or to undermine their own ordinances, then there becomes a conflict between the city and its insurance company and it's time for the city and its insurance company to part ways."
But Blair, the former police officer who quit in 1999, says the city has it coming. He paints Overland as a place where employees had to watch their backs.
"I just had a bellyful," says Blair, who walked away after ten years to take a job in a copper foundry. "When I went to work every day, I not only took a gun, I took a pocket micro-recorder. I checked my gun, but you know what I checked first? The recorder, to make sure the batteries were good and the tape was re-wound. If you cross them, if, for some reason, you talk to the wrong person, if you're not for them, you're against them. That's their mind-set.
"That was a place you wouldn't want your wife, your sister, any close relative to work. They treated people like shit."
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