A year ago, a group of female Denver Police Department employees met to discuss sexual harassment and discrimination in the force.
The women, both sworn and civilian staff, listed a series of regularly occurring abuses: a former lieutenant who frequently called drunk at night; the use of gender-based slurs; frequent and unwanted comments about women’s bodies. Others spoke of specific incidents of harassment: open discussion of female employees’ sex lives; a sergeant who touched his employee’s neck and grabbed her leg; being told it would be disloyal to report harassment to human resources.
After listening to her co-workers’ experiences — and reflecting on her own — Sgt. Carla Havard spoke out during the Sept. 27, 2021, meeting and called for an investigation into the allegations.
“I wanted to see justice for them and I wanted to demand justice for this open secret that we’ve known all along — that this institution is still a problem for females and for Blacks,” she said in a later interview.
Since then, Havard has been sidelined from the diversity and inclusion work she’s been doing for 24 years at the department and subject to a barrage of write-ups, according to a complaint she recently filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Havard said Denver police leaders, including her supervisor, are punishing her for being vocal about a workplace culture that harms women and people of color in the department.
“At that moment I felt compelled to do what I’ve been doing my entire 24-year history in the department — standing up for the legitimate and actual improvement of the workplace environment for the women and minorities in this department,” she said.
Havard, a well-known officer in the department and in the community, is one of four Black sergeants who are women — the highest rank held by Black women in the department. She leads the department’s Citywide Impact Team and also serves as the president of the Black Police Officers Organization.
Department leaders declined an interview request about Havard’s complaint, but Denver police spokesman Kurt Barnes said in a statement that the agency “has taken a number of strides in recent years to improve internal and external equity practices.” The steps include participating in a citywide Racial and Social Justice Academy and implementing respectful workplace trainings.
Havard’s complaint comes as the department attempts to recruit more female officers and diversify its ranks. Last year, the department pledged to have women make up 30% of police recruit classes by 2030. Women currently make up 15% of sworn officers, and 18% of officers hired thus far in 2022 were women.
The department currently employs 24 Black female police officers out of a possible 1,596 people on the force, according to department data.
Havard is glad the department is trying to create better working conditions for women and people of color. But that doesn’t excuse the harm that already has been inflicted — especially on Black women — or that continues to happen.
“We’re making progress, but it doesn’t mean that harm hasn’t been done,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that the people who have been champions of this for years have been treated well.”
Since the meeting of female employees last year, Havard said her supervisor has reassigned some of her work to a lower-ranking male officer and required her to meet unnecessary requirements that set her up to fail. She also was sidelined from diversity, equity and inclusion work she had led and participated in for years, the complaint states.
“As usual for Black women working in spaces where people just want to control us and not collaborate with us, your ideas get appropriated and the credit goes to other folks,” she said.
In March, her commander placed her on a performance improvement plan for acting “confrontational, alarming, aggressive, abusive, dismissive, demeaning and threatening.” Her commander would not give her specific examples of instances where she acted in that way, according to the complaint.
The performance plan “essentially characterized and cast (Havard) as the stereotype of an angry black woman,” her complaint states.
“When you are outspoken, when you are authentic, when you are unapologetic, they use systems to try to put you in place and stereotype you,” she said.
As part of the performance plan, Havard had to meet with her supervisor twice a week and submit daily reports that detailed how she spent every hour of her work shift. Her supervisor wrote her up for tiny infractions, like arriving two minutes late to a meeting or rolling up her uniform sleeves while moving boxes, the complaint states.
Havard completed the performance improvement plan, but the stress and extra work took a toll on her mental and physical health.
She also questioned the department’s failure to recommend anger management classes or counseling for her alleged aggressive behavior. If they were so concerned by her behavior, she asked, why did they let her continue to work in the community?
Havard doesn’t know whether the allegations of discrimination and harassment made at the Sept. 27, 2021, meeting were investigated. Internal Affairs Cmdr. Magen Dodge told Havard that the problems discussed at that meeting were being investigated and “handled,” according to Havard’s complaint.
Denver police spokesman Doug Schepman said the department could not say whether anybody was disciplined in connection to the discrimination and harassment described at the meeting because Havard’s complaint is pending. He also declined to explain what the department has done to investigate those allegations.
Havard’s complaint will now be evaluated by an investigator with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who will interview Havard and collect information from the city, said Jenipher Jones, Havard’s attorney. If the commission grants a right to sue, the two sides will then enter into mediation and, if that fails, Jones will file a federal lawsuit.
Havard is not the only officer who in recent years has filed complaints over sexism, racism and retaliation.
Dodge, one of the highest ranking women in the department, in 2019 filed a complaint stating the department was “rife with sexism” and alleged that she was effectively demoted after speaking out against sexist and derogatory remarks made by a former police chief. The city paid Dodge $280,000 to settle the claim and agreed to put Dodge in charge of the internal affairs bureau as part of the settlement.
Also in 2019, an officer was fired for sexually harassing a female intern during a ride-along.
Two officers were disciplined last month for racist behavior, disciplinary records show. One officer made a racist joke to a Vietnamese recruit and served a six-day suspension. A sergeant served a 10-day suspension for a text message in which he compared a Black member of his team to a character in a movie who was a slave.
“People are leaving in droves because they can barely make this place,” Havard said. “There’s trauma being Black, or being a woman here. Especially being a Black woman.”
Department data shows Black officers are leaving the department at a higher rate than others.
In 2021, Black officers made up 17% of separations from the Denver Police Department though just 9% of the department was Black, according to department data. Separations include resignations, retirements and terminations.
Havard hopes her complaint spurs cultural change in the department and starts overdue conversations about how to make it a safe place for all employees.
“I think there are a lot of people suffering in silence,” she said.
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