THE ISSUE: Jury awards woman nearly $2 million for being target of sexual harassment and gender discrimination when she was police officer in Mokena.
WE SAY: There is no place for the harassment Suzanne Barth had to put up with on the job. In this day and age, that should go without saying, but anyone who still needs to learn that should get a message from this verdict.
After a three-week trial in which Mokena’s first female police officer claimed she was the target of sexual harassment and gender discrimination on the job, a jury of four men and two women had little apparent difficulty early this month deciding who was telling truth. After deliberating for less than three hours, the jury awarded Suzanne Barth nearly $2 million in damages and compensation for lost pay.
Barth was hired in 1998 and quit the Mokena department in 2002 when she became convinced she could not depend on her fellow cops to “watch her back.” Barth claimed her fellow officers openly refused to back her up on calls because they were upset over her complaints about harassment.
Roy Brandys, one of Barth’s attorneys, said the verdict showed the jury believed Barth and did not believe the denials by village attorneys representing other officers. “Their defense was, ‘This didn’t happen.’
They still don’t understand the whole dynamic of sexual harassment.”
For example, a key element in Barth’s complaint was what she described as the routine practice of officers turning on Howard Stem’s TV show for 10 to 20 minutes each evening before the night shift began. The content of Stem’s show routinely centers on sex practices and discussions of the physical attributes of female guests, often including porn stars and strippers.
Barth said her co-workers would watch the show and comment on the women guests, sometimes comparing Barth’s body to Stems’ guests’. She complained about these instances and others, and as a result her male coworkers declined to provide her with backup on calls. Other police officers testified that Barth’s claims were untrue.
But the jury clearly believed Barth, not her co-workers, and found Barth’s account of the treatment she received unacceptable. An uncertain amount of the award will be covered by insurance, but it is unclear how much village taxpayers might be held accountable for.
Lawyers for the village said they will fight the verdict in a number of ways and eventually may appeal to the Appellate Court. But if the jury’s finding is an indicator, the decision and the actions that prompted the lawsuit will be costly ones for the village and its taxpayers. We hope village officials and members of the police department already have learned their lesson from the case. Behavior that might have drawn no objections in the days of an all-male police department no longer will be tolerated, and it should not be. It should not have taken a $2 million damage award to make it clear that their conduct was inappropriate. But now there should be no question among department members that their behavior was offensive, discriminatory and costly to the taxpayers and other residents of Mokena.
Appealing the verdict is one thing, but trying to justify offensive and inappropriate conduct is another. And the conduct described in the Barth trial is indefensible.