Cogbill disputes allegations of discrimination, retaliation

A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by two women against the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department alleges numerous incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination and retaliation they say they experienced after reporting the inappropriate behavior.|

A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by two women against the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department alleges numerous incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination and retaliation they say they experienced after reporting the inappropriate behavior.

Jail Sgt. Robin Smith and former patrol Deputy Lauren Ferrara are seeking $3 million in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The suit asks the court to order the Sheriff's Department to hire more women at all management levels, assign more women to prestigious units, such as the SWAT and violent crimes investigation teams, and hire an independent consultant to help revise the department's current sexual harassment policy.

It also asks the court to order changes in the current policy and to include specific disciplinary measures against harassers.

The Sheriff's Department has denied the allegations. A spokesman said investigations have not determined any validity to the women's claims.

The lawsuit contains a December letter signed by 13 female deputies to Sheriff Bill Cogbill, describing a sexist atmosphere for women in the department.

The letter was the result of a meeting Cogbill requested with female deputies in September.

"On his initiative, they generated that letter. They thanked him (Cogbill) for the opportunity to present their ideas," Sheriff's Lt. Roger Rude said. "Now, here's this allegation trying to sling mud at the department, using as ammunition the very thing the sheriff is doing to try to deal with those kinds of things."

Ferrara resigned in July and filed a discrimination claim in November, Rude said.

In the December letter, female deputies say the department needs to do more to recruit women and that more family-friendly policies, such as job sharing, should be made available.

They also claim the department's policy on discrimination and sexual harassment punishes victims and protects perpetrators.

Desiree Cox, a Santa Rosa lawyer who represents Smith and Ferrara, said victims who do not promptly report sexual harassment are threatened with discipline for not immediately coming forward.

"It turns the situation back on the victim, when the focus should be on the perpetrator," she said.

Cogbill met with female deputies after receiving the letter and has agreed to review the mandatory reporting policy, according to a statement issued Wednesday. He said he supports the concept of job sharing and is committed to recruiting more females.

"I am concerned about the allegations contained in this lawsuit and we will get to the truth of the matters at hand," Cogbill said in the statement. "I have complete confidence and a clear conscience in our efforts to provide for a healthy and respectful work environment."

The lawsuit, sent to the media a day before it was filed in court, names as defendants Cogbill and 13 of his top managers in the law enforcement and detention divisions, including jail Capt. Linda Suvoy, the highest-ranking woman in the department.

It alleges that Smith, who was hired in the jail in 1990, became the target of gender discrimination beginning in January 2002.

Smith was fired following an April 2002 incident involving the use of force on an inmate in a restraint chair who spit in the face of a correctional officer. She was reinstated in 2003 by the Civil Service Commission, which determined Smith did not make false statements about the incident, as investigator Randall Walker charged.

The suit claims that since 2002, "managers and command staff .. . have engaged in a pattern and practice of treating Smith differently than similarly situated non-sworn male officers of the department on the basis of her sex."

As an example, the suit says Walker was not disciplined or fired after it was determined he had failed to disclose a past misdemeanor arrest - a terminable offense.

The suit also says supervisors to whom Smith and Ferrara reported the discrimination, including the sheriff himself, did not document, investigate or correct the problems, as required by department policy.

Ferrara, who was hired in 2001 as a deputy, claims numerous incidents of discrimination because of her gender and sexual orientation, and of unwanted sexual advances from co-workers and a supervisor. She said she was transferred from assignment to assignment as retaliation and that male deputies failed to back her up on calls because of her gender.

When she reported racist comments by another deputy, as required by policy, Ferrara claims her supervisor, Dave Edmonds, questioned whether she was "too sensitive" about race and told her she should "reconsider" doing police work, the suit claims. The deputy who made the offensive comments was never disciplined, she said.

Ferrara alleges she was repeatedly subject to unwanted sexual advances, including by an unnamed sergeant who kissed her twice without her permission at an off-duty social event.

After her request to march in uniform in the Santa Rosa and San Francisco Gay Pride parades was denied, Ferrara was transferred to the supervision of the sergeant who had kissed her against her will, according to the suit.

The suit alleges wrongful discharge, claiming Ferrara was compelled to resign because of the harassment and retaliatory action she faced.

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