In a small, stuffy hearing room, a panel of three police officers heard the first day of testimony in the sexual-harassment case against Sgt. Robert Richards.
The veteran black police officer who led a city-shaking discrimination suit against the Police Department stands accused by that department of verbally and physically abusing his female subordinates.
The perceived importance and sensitivity of the case, which resumes Monday, was demonstrated by the gallery of figures who crammed into the three rows of blue metal folding chairs in the back of the room, including state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV and former state Sen. Larry Young.
Though several women are scheduled to take the stand, the centerpiece of yesterday's hearing was the lengthy, emotional testimony of Officer Pamela Walker, who alleges that Richards exposed himself and propositioned her during a visit to her new house in May, and thereafter subjected her to gropings, improper remarks and unfair treatment.
"I didn't want him touching me," Walker said, her voice quavering. "When I came to work, the first thing I did was look around the parking lot to see if he was in. Every day when I came in, I'd be shaking."
Walker said she was not likely to be believed or supported in a male-dominated police department. She said that as an African-American, she had misgivings about leveling accusations against a man many other black officers see as a hero. Walker, who filed a complaint in August, offered some of the most serious allegations against Richards.
Richards has said he's being targeted for filing a federal discrimination suit in 1996 after he was forced to leave the helicopter unit. The case, which is pending, has cast a harsh light on race relations in the Police Department and involved testimony from top city officials, including former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former police chief Ronald L. Daniel.
"One thing you've got to understand about proud African-Americans: If one person does something good ... it's like a victory for the whole race," Walker said. "How do you think they're going to view this? This looks terrible."
Richards' attorney, Michael Davey, repeatedly challenged Walker, who had spoken at length during the hearing about an alleged incident in which Richards unfairly tried to deny a leave request. She said she had never been disciplined for workplace-leave violations before, an assertion she recanted after Davey produced a December 1997 infraction in which she was written up for being absent without leave.
At other points in his cross-examinations, Davey compelled Walker to admit that she knew of no witnesses to the alleged verbal or physical acts, even though she had said that virtually all of them took place on the day shift, amid offices where sounds travel easily over cubicle-style walls.
Sgt. Richard Hite Jr., president of the African-American policeman's union, Vanguard Justice Society Inc. and said he has members "on both sides of the equation" in the Richards case, said the city's action has a whiff of payback to it.
"There's a healing process that needs to start soon so we can get back to policing," he said.