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3 veteran officers preparing sex harassment lawsuit against Salt Lake City

'We don't want someone to feel like they can't protect themselves,' sergeant says

SALT LAKE CITY — Three current and former veteran female officers of the Salt Lake City Police Department say for months they lived in fear of retaliation.

The women claim they were sexually harassed by a superior officer. Their harassment claims were substantiated by an Internal Affairs review, according to letters from Chief Chris Burbank and a city employment manager.

But the man accused of harassing the three officers — an assistant police chief — remained on duty for months after Burbank was officially notified of the claims, the women say. He resigned from the department shortly after becoming eligible to receive 20-year retirement benefits. Furthermore, the women say the man held a position of authority over them, including being the deputy chief in charge of Internal Affairs — the very department that would investigate their claims.

Because of that, the women say, they initially remained hesitant to report the alleged harassment.

Deputy Chief Rick Findlay was eventually placed on paid leave Nov. 8, 2013, and resigned from the department in June of 2014. He started at the department 20 years earlier on June 1, 1994.

Now those officers — Robin Heiden, Melody Gray and Tiffany Commagere — along with their attorney Ed Brass have notified the city that they intend to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city, the department, Findlay and Burbank. A notice of claim obtained by the Deseret News was filed with the city last year claiming each woman has been the subject of sexual harassment and ongoing retaliation.

The time period for the city to settle has now passed and the women say they intend to officially file their lawsuit as soon as an administration claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been resolved, which they expect in the near future.

The three say their purpose in filing the lawsuit is to prompt policy change to give all officers, especially women, an avenue that they feel they can pursue safely without fear of retaliation or humiliation if they should ever need to make a claim of their own.

"We don't want someone to feel like they can't protect themselves," Heiden told the Deseret News.

Going public

But even now, the women say they are still in fear that they are putting their reputations and even their careers on the line by pursuing a sexual harassment lawsuit. The women say even though their names have not been public until now, other officers have known who was involved in the allegations.

Yet in some cases, the women say there have been a handful of officers who expressed their opinions to them — not knowing that they were the ones who were allegedly harassed — saying that they blamed Findlay's alleged victims for his resignation. Such comments, they say, have further added to their anxiety.

But the experiences of all three women from the same department and the fact they second-guessed whether to do anything about those experiences have convinced Heiden, Gray and Commagere that change needs to happen.

Police shootings, they point out, are investigated by outside agencies. Traffic accidents involving officers, even minor fender-benders, are investigated by outside agencies. So why aren't sexual harassment claims? That is what the women want to know.

Heiden, a sergeant and longtime public information officer, has been with the Salt Lake City Police Department for 18 years. She has twice been on the SWAT team — a position typically held by men — and said she had never previously experienced a problem with sexual harassment.

Gray also worked for 18 years with the department, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Commagere has been with the department for 10 years.

Each woman said they had to work extra hard to be accepted as equals in the male-dominated department and a profession where a person's toughness is often judged by their peers.

But Heiden and Gray said everything they worked for was changed in an instant by a single cellphone picture.

'Great embarrassment'

Their careers changed dramatically in 2011, they say. That's when Findlay took Gray's phone without her consent and went through her pictures, according to the notice of claim and a "final determination" letter sent to Findlay by Burbank. One of those photos was of Heiden and Gray wearing bikinis. Findlay allegedly forwarded that photo to his own phone and showed it to other people, including co-workers, over the next two years, those documents state.

The women say suddenly in an occupation where women want to be treated as equals, they felt they were now being objectified by co-workers and others who had seen the pictures.

"This caused (Gray) great embarrassment and diminished her reputation and her effectiveness as an officer in a command position," the notice of claim states.

In 2012, Gray resigned from the department after a disciplinary proceeding was commenced against her by Findlay.

"His ongoing harassment of her was exacerbated by his exercise of a position of authority over her," according to the women's notice of claim.

Findlay was responsible for overseeing 11 detective squads, including the investigations unit.

The deputy chief was also on the panel that determined who would advance to the rank of lieutenant. Heiden says before she took the lieutenant's test, Findlay "attempted to pursue a personal relationship with her but was rejected," the notice of claim states. She believes she was not objectively evaluated after rejecting his alleged advances and thus was not promoted.

In Commagere's case, it wasn't until 2013 when she was called to speak to Internal Affairs investigators that she learned Findlay had been on a golf trip with co-workers and allegedly showed them a picture of a nude woman that he claimed was her. Aside from the fact that Commagere said she would never give Findlay such a photo, there was never proof that the woman in the picture was her. But trying to pass off a picture of a nude woman as her was no less offensive or violating, she said.

"There is no evidence or testimony to suggest that the affected officer (Commagere) granted or would have granted permission to you to display the image(s) or allow her name to be associated with them," Burbank told Findlay in the disciplinary letter.

After Gray resigned, an anonymous letter was sent to Burbank's office in February of 2013 regarding the bikini incident. None of the women say they were responsible for the letter.

In April of 2013, Gray — no longer fearing repercussions because she no longer worked with the department — said she went to Burbank's office to tell him what had happened. By September, the department's Internal Affairs Office began investigating the case. It was at that time that Heiden also finally stepped forward to tell administrators what had happened.

Administrative leave

Despite claims of sexual harassment levied against him, Findlay wasn't placed on administrative leave until Nov. 8, 2013 — more than two years after investigators say he took photos from Gray's phone and seven months after she said she talked to administrators. On April 15, 2014, Findlay waived his right to a pre-disciplinary hearing, meaning he had the chance to dispute the allegations against him. Because of that, his case went straight to Burbank's desk for a final determination of discipline.

On June 4, 2014, a letter sustaining the sexual harassment allegations against Findlay was delivered from Burbank's office to his chief deputy. Burbank noted in the letter that Findlay's actions were unacceptable but did not warrant termination.

"Your behavior calls into question not only your personal professionalism but that of the entire police department. Your conduct undermined the involved employees and could have lasting negative consequences," Burbank wrote.

"Your contributions to the Salt Lake City Police Department throughout your career have been significant. It is unfortunate that your lack of judgment in this instance has such adverse impact. Because of the involvement of subordinate officers, it has additionally called into question your ability to remain a leader in the organization."

But by the time the letter was released, Findlay had resigned from the force after reaching his 20-year mark, following months of being on paid administrative leave.

"By accepting your resignation, I deem this matter concluded," Burbank's letter states.

Feeling betrayed

All three women say they suffered emotional distress during the months after their harassment claims were made and the time Findlay remained in a position of authority.

The officers now feel they were betrayed by the very people who were supposed to protect them. They compared it to a case of a regular citizen who makes a sexual harassment claim and then is forced to wait, not knowing what the person who the claim is made against will do.

While officers are held to a higher standard in public for their actions, Commagere said she believes she and her colleagues were treated with less respect than what one would normally expect with a sexual harassment allegation made at any other workplace.

The Salt Lake City Mayor's Office, the Salt Lake City Attorney's Office and Burbank all declined to comment, citing policy that they cannot respond to pending litigation and must wait until a lawsuit is actually filed.

Attempts by the Deseret News to contact Findlay for comment were unsuccessful.

In 2007, about 13 percent of the city's sworn officers were female. Now, of the nearly 420 sworn officers with the department, less than 10 percent are women.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam