MOUNT RAINIER, Md. - The harassment and assault allegations landed in the small Maryland city last year, as the flood of accusations inspired by the #MeToo movement were still grabbing headlines.
A police department records clerk said two officers routinely showed her explicit pictures and asked graphic questions, including whether she would have sex for money. A third officer pressured her to perform sex acts, the woman reported, and made her fear for her job if she refused.
Officials in Mount Rainier, population 8,000, hired a lawyer to investigate. The lawyer found the clerk's account credible, but all three officers left the department with clean records. Soon, two were working in Seat Pleasant, a nearby town of 4,800. The police chief there said he was unaware of the allegations when he hired them.
Experts say the clerk's story offers a window into the challenges of proving officer misconduct, especially within small police departments, and the ease with which accused officers can move from one minimally staffed agency to another.
"With any one small city, people say, 'It's just one small city,' " said Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Maryland.
"There is aggregate harm being done," Sherman added.
The records clerk spoke on the condition that only her first name, Maria, be used, citing concerns about privacy. None of the officers she accused responded to repeated requests for comment.
Maria's position was eliminated this summer, while she was on leave for depression and anxiety and seeking compensation from the city. She is despondent at losing a job she loved and frustrated that the officers - including the one she says groped her without consent - have continued their work.
"If I don't pay a parking ticket, there are consequences," said Maria, a 43-year-old immigrant from El Salvador. "But he is now carrying a gun. . . . How could you possibly leave him where he could do it again?"
- - -
Maria worked in the records office, earning about $40,000 a year. It wasn't until mandatory anti-harassment training in 2018, she says, that she realized she had been sexually harassed for years.
The instructor discussed inappropriate touching, lewd jokes and sharing graphic pictures. Maria thought about conversations that had long made her uncomfortable but that she had not realized violated city policies.
One female officer often asked her to look at pictures of naked men, she said, and showed her lingerie. A police captain asked how much money she would accept to participate in a threesome. Her civilian supervisor offered her a day off if she tried anal sex.
The remarks made Maria feel "awkward and disgusted," she wrote in her initial complaint, which accused two officers and three civilian employees of harassment. The civilians also did not respond to requests for comment.
Two months later, Maria told the city that an officer who was her boyfriend's longtime friend repeatedly kissed her without her consent and touched her breasts and genitals over the course of nearly two years. She said he pressured her to perform sex acts, even when she told him "no" and pushed him away.
Frederick Sussman, the attorney hired by the city, interviewed Maria for more than 11 hours and talked with the majority of the police department's 16 members. His report, obtained by The Washington Post, said he found Maria to be "highly credible" and concluded that sexual harassment had occurred. He considered the assault allegation outside the purview of his investigation, but wrote that it could have risen to the level of a crime.
Officers "were quite candid about the prevalence of sexual talk and locker room talk," Sussman wrote, including discussions about sex positions and distribution of inappropriate pictures.
The report was not given to Maria. The few staff members who received paper copies were warned not to share them, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
Maria told The Washington Post that the officer she accused of assault made her "pinkie promise" not to tell anyone and once pointed at his stripes, saying she would have a problem if she complained. She started tiptoeing past his office, she said, afraid he would pull her inside.
Maria's boyfriend called him one night to ask about Maria's allegation and say she planned to report him, Maria and her boyfriend said in interviews. The next day, the officer resigned. He was wearing a badge in Seat Pleasant weeks later.
- - -
Nationwide, 73% of police departments employed fewer than 25 full-time staff members in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. They struggle to provide due process and fairness to those alleging misconduct, said Sherman, partly because everyone knows each other and partly because vacancies are hard to fill.
Experts say small departments have improved their handling of harassment and assault allegations in recent years. But victims still sometimes hesitate to report because of legal protections afforded to officers - often enshrined in officers' bills of rights - and their ability to retaliate, said Terry Gilbert, a Cleveland-based civil rights and defense lawyer.
He cites Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 and was hired this year by a small department in Ohio, as part of a pattern in which officers move between departments with little accountability.
A grand jury declined to indict Loehmann for shooting Rice, who had an airsoft replica of a semiautomatic weapon. But the officer was fired from Cleveland's force for lying about his earlier departure from a smaller department. When Loehmann was hired last year in Bellaire, Police Chief Richard Flanagan told the local newspaper that the officer had been cleared of wrongdoing. Flanagan declined to comment to The Post.
"Unlike other employment situations where the most minimal scar on someone's record will forever prevent them from getting a job, the police seem to have this way of protecting their own, unless the conduct is really egregious," Gilbert told The Post.
In Maryland, police accused of misconduct can be formally disciplined only if an internal affairs investigation is conducted by another sworn officer. Departments are supposed to launch such probes whenever misconduct is alleged, experts say.
But Mount Rainier relied on a less-formal examination by a lawyer in Maria's case, said Police Chief Anthony Morgan, who joined the department after the accused officers left or were placed on paid administrative leave.
Seat Pleasant Police Chief Devan Martin said no one mentioned the allegations against either officer during reference checks. Nor did their personnel files indicate any issues.
"It's safe to say that if there were an opportunity to have a do-over, things would have been done differently," Morgan said.
- - -
Firing police officers in some states, especially those with strong unions, is so time-consuming and expensive that departments are glad to let them resign, said Howard Friedman, an attorney in Boston who represents alleged victims of police misconduct.
In Mount Rainier, Morgan said, a chief would have to present the case to a trial board, composed of other law enforcement officials, and wait for a ruling, which could be appealed.
After the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pushed to overhaul Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. She wanted to create a felony "misconduct in office" charge and allow officers to be disciplined without the right to appeal.
The bill, strongly opposed by the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police and groups representing chiefs and sheriffs, did not advance. FOP President Vince Canales said the union's opposition was "strictly a due process issue." He said police face more stress than most professionals and law enforcement officers' bills of rights ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of how investigations are conducted.
Then-Mount Rainier City Manager Miranda Braatz defended the handling of Maria's case, saying the police department was the first city agency to train employees in how to address sexual harassment and promptly hired Sussman after Maria complained.
"We went above and beyond," Braatz said.
But Chuck Drago, a former police chief in Oviedo, Florida, who now works as a consultant and expert witness, said the city should have immediately launched internal affairs investigations, requested help from another agency if needed and alerted the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, which decertifies officers during disciplinary probes. The PCTC has no record of discipline issues related to any of the accused officers, spokesman Mark Vernarelli said.
Even if an accused officer resigns, Drago said, "it is still a critical thing for a police chief to know if that employee is guilty of committing harassment or assault because there may be issues in the department's policies or supervision that need to be corrected."
Braatz said there were difficulties finding another department to investigate. In Maryland, Prince George's County police spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan said the department has no record of Mount Rainier requesting help. Prince George's Police Chief Hank Stawinski, head of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, declined to comment on the details of the Mount Rainier case. But he said that "best practice is to document, investigate, draw conclusions and have independent eyes at every opportunity."
Martin said Seat Pleasant conducted background checks into both officers it hired but knew nothing about Maria's complaint until months later, when the department was contacted by a reporter from NBC4. He has launched an internal affairs investigation, which is ongoing.
"For me, that left a serious bad taste," Martin said. "There are safeguards and steps in there. They just have to be followed by government."
- - -
After Maria reported the harassment, she said, she felt ostracized by some of her colleagues. When her car was vandalized, she worried it was an act of retaliation.
In July 2018, she filed a complaint with Prince George's police against the officer she said had assaulted her. A detective concluded the allegations did not warrant a criminal investigation because Maria did not articulate resistance, according to police reports.
Maria told the detective she said "no" and pulled away from the officer. She said the detective seemed inclined not to believe her and failed to take into account that she was scared of losing her job and of how her boyfriend would react.
"Critical elements necessary for criminal prosecution were not presented," said Donelan, the department spokeswoman. "However, if there is new information or new details of which we need to be made aware, we are always here."
Engulfed by depression and anxiety, Maria applied for workers' compensation to cover the costs of therapy. She said her initial request was denied, and she withdrew her appeal after filing a complaint alleging sexual harassment and assault with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That complaint is still pending.
She has not worked in Mount Rainier since September 2018, when she was hospitalized for depression.
D'Alizza Mercedes, head of human resources for Mount Rainier, said the city did all it could to protect Maria. Her workers' compensation request, Mercedes said, fell outside of what is usually covered by that program.
This summer, Maria received a letter from Mercedes saying her job had been eliminated and her employment would be "terminated effective immediately."
"All I have ever wanted to do was work," Maria said. "And now they are taking away my career."
The letter chided Maria for not reporting sooner. "It was unfortunate that you waited so long to complain about sexual harassment," Mercedes wrote. ". . . Had you come forward sooner, we could have helped you sooner."
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!