The U.S. Justice Department is investigating sexual harassment claims at the Maryland State Police to determine whether the agency violated the civil rights of its troopers, federal and state officials said yesterday.
After reports of widespread harassment within the ranks of the 1,591-member force late last year, Justice Department attorneys conducted a preliminary probe and concluded that there was enough evidence to support a full-scale civil rights investigation. The department notified the state of its decision earlier this year.
"We have information indicating that the Maryland State Police may be engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful employment discrimination against women based on sex in trooper jobs," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Deval L. Patrick told the state, according to a copy of his Jan. 5 notification.
The Justice Department is working with the U.S. attorney's office in the investigation, said Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney in Baltimore.
"It's in the very beginning stages. We've had contact with the department during the last month and with a member of the civil rights division," she said.
The Maryland attorney general's office, which provides legal counsel to the state police, has agreed to cooperate and has provided documents to Justice Department attorneys, said Deputy Attorney General Ralph Tyler.
"We were contacted by Justice, and we indicated our intent to fully cooperate," said Mr. Tyler, whose office is defending the state police against three sex harassment suits in federal court. "They will review the information, and they will make a judgment."
The investigation follows reports in The Sun in October that described widespread harassment problems at the agency.
The problems ranged from obscene remarks and jokes to threats and advances bordering on criminal assault. The articles also reported that complaints were poorly investigated, discipline was rarely meted out, and those who complained faced retaliation from their supervisors and colleagues.
Sexual harassment and discrimination are prohibited under federal civil rights laws, which protect employees from unwanted advances and other sexually charged activities that create hostile work environments.
Historically, the Justice Department has not examined whether sexual harassment complaints constitute civil rights violations, legal experts said yesterday.
But in recent years, the department has become more aggressive, conducting a flurry of similar investigations around the country. For example, the department last year won a $45,000 settlement for a Kansas Department of Corrections employee, who was forced from her job by sexual harassment from fellow workers.
At the Maryland State Police, the Justice Department will investigate whether the agency violated troopers' rights through pattern of harassment and discrimination. If investigators document a pattern, the Justice Department can order staff or policy changes at the agency, or it can sue the state police for damages in federal court, legal experts said.
State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell said yesterday that he was notified about the investigation before taking over the agency earlier this year from Larry W. Tolliver. He said the examination may help him and his staff identify harassment problems.
Shortly after The Sun published its articles, a Justice Department lawyer started to interview state police troopers and others familiar with the agency to determine whether an investigation was warranted.
Dr. Stephen Curran, a psychologist who counseled troopers for a decade before leaving the agency in 1993, said he was interviewed late last year. He said a Justice Department lawyer questioned him about his state police clients. Dr. Curran has said he treated a dozen female troopers who complained of harassment.
Legal experts said the investigation could take months. Douglas Huron, once a senior civil rights attorney for the Justice Department, said department lawyers will continue to interview troopers and to review internal complaints and hearing transcripts to determine whether a pattern of harassment exists.
"They will look at whether there's enough evidence to support a case in court, and whether there is a pattern or practice of violations," said Mr. Huron, now a partner at the Washington law firm Kator Scott & Heller, which specializes in discrimination cases.
If the Justice Department documents evidence of civil rights violations, the federal agency has several options. It can order the state police to make staff and policy changes to prevent further harassment, and it can enforce those changes through an agreement backed by a federal judge. The department could also request damages on behalf of troopers whose civil rights were violated.
If the agency refuses to cooperate, the Justice Department can sue in federal court, where damages are limited to $300,000 for each documented case of harassment, legal experts said.
"They will try to find out whether harassment happens and whether supervisors took vigorous steps to stop it," said David L. Rose, a civil rights section chief at the Justice Department until 1987. "The higher up you go in the structure, the more likely it is to be a pattern or a practice."
Colonel Mitchell said a task force is studying harassment complaints at the agency and is drafting some recommendations. Among them are making commanding officers more accountable and developing ways to prevent retaliation against troopers who file complaints.
He said he is also considering hiring an outside consultant to examine the agency and review its policies.
"Sexual harassment will not be tolerated," Colonel Mitchell said.