Getting tough on harassment


Anne Arundel County Police Chief Robert P. Russell is finally getting tough on sexual harassment in his department. He has imposed a $5,000 fine against the head of the Criminal Investigation Division, who is charged with harassing two female employees. The fine -- the equivalent of a month's pay and one of the largest in department history -- serves notice that lewd comments, intimidation and outright abuse will not be tolerated among police ranks any more.

Though events within the department have been slowly forcing Chief Russell toward a more aggressive stance on harassment issues, he used this opportunity to prove he's serious about cracking down on male officers who degrade women.

Of the five officers who have been charged with harassment since February, the most serious alleged offender, a captain accused of rape, retired before formal charges were filed. Chief Russell suspended a sergeant, accused of calling a colleague "good in bed" in front of his squad, for a day without pay -- an appropriate penalty but one involving too minor a charge to be used as an example. Sure enough, another police officer soon was accused of making a more graphic comment.

The case of the captain in charge of criminal investigation was Chief Russell's chance to show where he stands on sexual harassment. The captain, with 22 years on the force, had pleaded guilty to harassing two female civilian workers between 1989 and last spring, waiving his right to a hearing. It was strictly up to the chief either to slap him on the wrist or send a clear signal that even experienced, top-level policemen will not get away with offensive behavior toward women.

Yet old attitudes die hard -- and not just among men. Too many women still believe unwelcome teasing and insults are an expected part of the workplace; too many women police officers believe their ability to weather such treatment is a measure of their "toughness" -- of their quality as cops.

With the $5,000 fine and stepped-up efforts to teach officers what constitutes sexual harassment, Chief Russell has taken a major step toward leading his force into a more enlightened era. But it's only a step; when it comes to men, women and their attitudes toward each other, this department still has a long way to go.

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