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Female officer's sex bias lawsuit denied

It was the second time in a month that a sex bias suit against the Pinellas Park Police Department was dismissed.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002

PINELLAS PARK -- To hear Donna Saxer tell it, she was an enthusiastic, award-winning cop whose ideas for improving the Police Department were often adopted. Yet her frequent requests for training and applications for special assignments were rejected.

Her conclusion: Pinellas Park police were denying her advancement because she is a woman. She sued the city.

To Saxer's superiors, she was a good cop who resented being taken off the bicycle squad and returned to patrol. That caused a bad attitude and constant complaining.

As for denial of training, sometimes it was because the city had no funds. Another time, they said, she had not gone through the proper channels. As for special assignments, she didn't apply, they said.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Lazzara agreed with the city, giving the Police Department its second court triumph within a month. Lazzara had dismissed another claim of sex discrimination against the department just days before the Saxer case began.

The victories were good news for a department that has been torn by scandal and dissension during the past couple of years.

Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas said she felt the department had been vindicated and was glad to be able to get the department back to normal.

"We're just glad it's over with," Thomas said.

City Manager Jerry Mudd said the decisions reaffirmed what he always knew.

"We've always felt there was no discrimination in our police department or anywhere else in our city, for that matter," Mudd said. "Hopefully we can get on with the business we're about."

Former police Chief David Milchan, who resigned under fire, said he "felt exonerated because the accusations of discrimination really stung. I've tried so hard during my career not to discriminate."

Saxer had charged that because of her gender:

-- She was denied three positions in 1999, as a field training officer, crime prevention officer and community police officer.

-- She was not chosen for the vice unit in 2000 and again was rejected as a field training officer.

-- She failed to become a hostage negotiator in 2001 and was denied a chance to take a course in instructor's techniques.

Saxer also alleged that she had been retaliated against for complaining of "unequal" treatment in 1999 by having lowered job evaluations in 1999, 2000 and 2001 and being subjected to two internal affairs investigations that city police officials ruled as unfounded.

On Monday, Lazzara refused to send the issue to the jury because Saxer had failed to prove her case.

"I find as a matter of law . . . that the city of Pinellas Park Police Department . . . did not discriminate against Officer Saxer based on her sex nor did they retaliate against her," Lazzara said, though he did not let the city off without some harsh words.

"It could be said that perhaps the Pinellas Park Police Department should have paid more attention to Officer Saxer's qualifications," he said.

The judge also said the department could establish a better procedure for choosing its field training officers, those cops who take newly hired officers under their wings and show them the ropes.

Saxer and Officer Cindy Martin, whose lawsuit was dismissed Oct. 17, had testified that the department does not post openings for field training officers. Instead, sergeants make suggestions and the chosen officers are "tapped on the shoulder."

City officials had testified that officers have to show some interest in wanting to become a field training officer, or FTO. They can do that in a number of ways: Telling a sergeant. Putting it in their goals at evaluation time.

Some of that testimony was contradicted by Officer Mike Erwin, who testified he had never told superiors that he was interested in the position, although he had told fellow officers. One day, Sgt. Tracey Schofield asked him if he would like to be an FTO. Erwin said yes and he got the job.

But that did not convince the judge that Saxer had been wronged. He quoted her testimony -- "I've never specifically gone and stated I want to be an FTO, only expressed an interest."

That was not enough, Lazzara said, to place a duty on the department that it must consider Saxer for the job.

Lazzara frequently used Saxer's words against her in making his decision.

She testified, he said, that Milchan and Thomas had not discriminated against her because of her sex. Saxer also specifically testified that she did not believe she had been denied each position or training because of sex discrimination.

The judge also dismissed the possibility that Milchan and Thomas were "cat's paw rubberstamps" who had merely taken the word of sexist sergeants, lieutenants and captains when choosing other officers over Saxer.

There was not a "scintilla" of evidence that showed that, Lazzara said and he pointed out that women now occupy several of the positions that Saxer wanted.

Saxer's case also was hurt, he said, when she twice turned down job offers in the city's detective bureau. The city obviously did not discriminate or retaliate against her or she would not have gotten the job offer, Lazzara said.

As she had when Martin's case was dismissed, Thomas crossed the courtroom and shook Saxer's hand.

"Chief, I respect you always," said Saxer, who plans to return to work this morning.

Thomas said the lawsuit should not hurt Saxer's standing in the department or her future.

"She's a good officer," Thomas said. "We had a difference of opinion."

Saxer's attorney, Catherine Kyres, said she hopes Saxer works for the department "for the next 20 years."

"Hopefully, she'll get positions in the future," Kyres said.

But Kyres said Monday's decision may not be the end of the matter: "We're considering an appeal."

Saxer declined comment, except to say she plans to form a support group for female law enforcement officers around the Tampa Bay area.

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