HAMMOND — A sexual harassment lawsuit against the city Police Department has gone on for more than two years, in part because of attorneys quarreling over whether aspects of the accused officer’s disciplinary record should be permitted as evidence.
The February 2017 lawsuit by Denise Szany, a female police corporal, claims a male co-worker, Jaime Garcia, aggressively attacked her and slapped her on her backside Oct. 19, 2016.
She alleges in the suit the city through its Police Department fosters a hostile work environment that tolerates sexual misconduct toward women and has failed to prevent sexual harassment, records state.
Szany arrived at the department at 11 p.m. for a midnight shift briefing when Garcia violently grabbed her by her vest, she said. A struggle ensued, and she repeatedly ordered Garcia to get his hands off her, according to a police report she filed.
“This continued for about 45 seconds to a minute, in which it even went outside of the briefing room into the hallway by the supervisor’s office and that is when Garcia took his hand off my vest,” Szany wrote.
After she walked back into the briefing room, Garcia followed unbeknownst to her, the report states. As she reached for her body camera at the charging dock, Garcia slapped her with an open hand on her buttocks and ran out of the room, the report continues.
“Officer Garcia was out in the hallway making weird faces into the briefing room and laughing,” Szany's report states. “I am unsure as to when it would ever be appropriate to ever put your hands on anyone, especially a female, touching/striking them in a private area. It was uncalled for, degrading, humiliating, embarrassing, offensive, and should never be tolerated and will not."
Szany’s attorney, Christopher Cooper, said in court filings the police chief has suggested during court depositions that Szany could have, and should have, arrested Garcia on misconduct charges.
"The tenor of Defendant Hammond’s motion ... joined with its recent expression by its chief of police that it was Szany ... who could have and should have arrested Officer Garcia, is part and parcel of a tirade against women ... and their reasonable expectation that in the workplace, their backsides will not be slapped," Cooper wrote.
Szany filed a complaint immediately, though the department did not suspend Garcia until months later, and only after Cooper filed Szany’s lawsuit.
"What was the holdup?” Cooper told The Times.
The department declined to say whether Garcia was disciplined for the alleged incident involving Szany, and instead required The Times submit a Freedom of Information Act request for applicable records.
A week later, the department provided a one-page letter dated Feb. 22 to the Board of Public Works and Safety notifying the board of Garcia’s five-day suspension. They sent the document only after securing permission from the judge overseeing the case.
Building Szany's case
Cooper said he believes admitting into evidence on-duty and off-duty incidents considered violent or sexual in nature involving Garcia and/or other officers would add merit to his client’s case by showing Hammond knew of various allegations but did little to discipline those involved.
In a Feb. 12 filing, Cooper explains he wants to question employees about an incident in which one or more male Hammond officers allegedly sexually assaulted three Hammond female officers.
He also wants to question employees further as to whether Garcia was disciplined for the alleged improper use of a Taser while off duty, if Police Chief John Doughty was aware of the incident and actions by the department in that case, and if the department was aware of an alleged improper 2003 arrest of an individual in Illinois prior to Garcia's hiring.
In the latest court filings, the Hammond Police Department has asked a judge to bar Cooper from questioning employees about allegations of off-duty sexual harassment and violence.
“Based on discussions between counsel and prior depositions, it is expected that Plaintiff’s counsel may depose a female HPD officer and ask her questions about an alleged off-duty occurrence purporting to be of a sexually harassing nature and initiated by a male (Hammond Police Department) officer other than Corporal Garcia,” Ryan Cook, the department’s attorney, wrote in a Feb. 11 court filing.
In Cook’s motion seeking a protection order, he argues the court has authority to limit discovery in the February 2017 lawsuit “to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.”
Hammond also is asking a judge to bar Cooper from asking questions about Garcia’s personnel file as it relates to “generalized violence.”
“They don’t want me to ask questions on that,” Cooper said. “In order to show Title VII sexual harassment liability, you must show the municipality was on notice that there were problems of this sort. Now, they want to keep any evidence out that shows that this could be mainstream.”
The courts recently ruled certain documents in Garcia’s internal affairs file to be irrelevant in Szany’s case, except for: complaints of sexual harassment, misconduct and violence toward co-workers. In seeking the protection order, the city’s Police Department has asked the judge to clarify that “violence toward co-workers” expressly does not include general allegations of violence toward anyone.
However, Cook argued off-duty sexual harassment allegations against city police officers other than Garcia are not relevant to Szany’s case “simply because the allegations might exist.”
“Testimony about such (off-duty) conduct can have no logical bearing on Plaintiff’s claim of workplace sexual harassment,” Cook stated.
Disciplinary files sought
Cooper says he has also been fighting for months to gain access to Garcia’s complete internal personnel records believed to be critical in building his client’s case.
“What did Officer Garcia do in addition to sexually assaulting Officer Szany? The public has a right to know.” he said. “This explains the voluminous filings by Hammond to keep me and the public from finding out.”
Despite Cooper’s efforts to obtain personnel records, the Police Department has partially secured protections against certain disclosures, citing “law enforcement privilege.”
“I have never in nearly 20-plus years of practice, experienced such an effort by a municipality to keep documents from the public. Nor, have I ever had a case in which a police department has invoked the tool of 'law enforcement privilege' as a basis to keep an officer's discipline file from the public,” Cooper said.
In court filings, the Police Department argues Szany’s request for files is an overstretch and divulges privileged information. Attorneys cited past case law in which plaintiffs routinely agree to set limits on admissible discovery.
Asked for comment on the case, Hammond police spokesman Lt. Steven Kellogg said the department “adheres to an officer standard of conduct policy that requires all officers to treat everyone, the public and co-workers alike, with dignity and respect.”
“This includes a zero-tolerance policy regarding acts of sexual harassment that has been in place for more than 30 years,” he said.
“As to why a police department cites law-enforcement privilege, the answer is that law enforcement privilege protects the investigatory process. Just as in journalism, protecting sources and witnesses is necessary to undertake an effective investigation. If a person knows that his or her complaint or statement may be disclosed, that person may be discouraged from making a complaint or giving a full statement. The assurance of investigative privilege allows us to do our jobs more thoroughly and effectively,” he said.
The department declined further comment.
Cooper has expressed frustration with the case in recent weeks as the department's attorneys file numerous motions seeking to keep much of Garcia’s personnel file off limits.