Amid the furor and finger-pointing around sexual harassment and assault allegations involving former Spokane Chief of Police Frank Straub, one group seems to have been pushed to the sidelines: the police department’s female employees.
Former department communications director Monique Cotton’s report last April that her boss, Straub, had “grabbed her ass and tried to kiss her,” should have prompted an immediate investigation. Instead, Mayor David Condon, to whom she complained, moved only to protect the parties involved.
With his inaction, our mayor abdicated his responsibility to the other women working under Straub and, indeed, to all female employees of the city of Spokane, who may now deduce that workplace sexual harassment is not a punishable offense in his view.
But what if, as some are asking, Cotton’s allegations are false? In that case, an investigation would likely have done no harm. If they are true, however, the police department’s women remained at risk for five months, until Straub left due to separate, unrelated complaints. All we know now is that Condon took Cotton’s report seriously enough to transfer her to the parks department, out of Straub’s way.
Moving Cotton was a laudable, and necessary, action. But protecting her at the expense of her co-workers was wrong. Condon left those women vulnerable to possible harassment and even assault – defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office on Women’s Health as including “fondling or unwanted touching above or under clothes.”
City policy on sexual harassment is clear. “When supervisors are notified of alleged sexual harassment, they shall immediately” document and report the incident, investigate the complaint, take appropriate corrective action, forward the results to the human resources department and provide official findings to the person who complained, according to a Sept. 11 Spokesman-Review article.
Condon says Cotton’s refusal to file an official claim or cooperate in an investigation tied his hands. But did he never stop to consider that other women might be suffering similar abuse from Straub? The mayor’s responsibility doesn’t stop with just one city employee, but extends to all.
The city’s sexual harassment policy does not require an official claim before an investigation ensues. And if Condon was waiting for other women to come forward, he erred – because study after study shows that victims of sexual harassment and abuse often don’t report the crime.
In a survey last year by the Angus Reid Institute in Toronto, four of five respondents who say they were sexually harassed at work did not report the incidents to their employer. Many cited shame as their reason.
The United Kingdom parenting website Mumsnet found that 83 percent of survey respondents who had been raped or sexually assaulted never reported the incident or incidents. Most said the legal system, media and society would be unsympathetic.
And who can blame them? For all our talk of gender equality, women who speak out about sexual abuse often suffer blame, shame, heightened scrutiny into their personal lives, accusations and even lawsuits. Look what happened to Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and so many others, including the women suing comedian Bill Cosby for sexual assault and defamation, whom he labeled “opportunistic” in his countersuit.
There’s another reason why sex-abuse victims often don’t come forward: trauma. Attorney Janet Chung with Legal Voice, a women’s law center in Seattle, told me that victims often just want the abuse to stop. The legal process and public scrutiny that follow prolong the horror for these women, she said.
“It takes a tough person to want to pursue this kind of claim,” Chung said.
Already we’ve seen some backlash against Cotton. Some have suggested that she fabricated her allegations to get back at Straub, who had shouted sexual obscenities in a meeting with senior officers she attended before approaching Condon. Some say she just wanted a raise. This victim-blaming may be why she refused to file an official claim, naively thinking she could keep her report to Condon out of the public eye.
“This person has hurt me enough,” she reportedly texted to City Administrator Theresa Sanders. “I don’t want to be hurt anymore.”
Sherry Jones is a Spokane author and journalist, and chair of the sexual harassment/violence committee of Spokane Area National Organization for Women.
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