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Op-Ed: Your Baby Or Your Beat (The New York Times)

By Donna Lieberman — Twenty years ago, Suffolk County settled a class-action lawsuit that had charged the Suffolk County Police Department with rampant discrimination against African-Americans, Hispanics and women. At that time very few women were on the force. To settle the case, the county agreed to abandon employment practices that kept women from serving as police officers.

We’d like to think that problems like these have been solved. But it turns out that Suffolk’s Police Department is still not so kind to the women in its ranks.

This week, six Suffolk County police officers, all women, will take the Suffolk County Police Department to trial in another discrimination case, with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union as their counsel. Their suit charges that the department discriminates against women who are pregnant. In 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission corroborated their complaint, finding that each of the plaintiffs had experienced discrimination at the hands of Suffolk County.

Women on the force, the county says, are entitled to the same rights as men. But if they want to remain on patrol during the course of their pregnancies, they face special risks. The county requires all officers to wear bulletproof vests and gun belts while on patrol but acknowledges that it doesn’t provide vests or gun belts that properly fit during pregnancy, exposing officers to greater danger when they’re pregnant than at any other time in their career.

The county also refuses to guarantee officers who become pregnant a fair chance at alternatives to full patrol — like desk jobs or other light duty work — for the several months they might reasonably be expected to need it.

For years, light duty was the sinecure of men — some of whom needed light duty assignments, and many of whom just didn’t. Commanders decided at their discretion who received such jobs. When a pattern of abuse came to light about five years ago, the county only made matters worse: instead of eliminating the favoritism and weeding out the abuse, the county eliminated light duty assignments except for officers injured on the job. As a result, pregnant officers with legitimate temporary health needs were compelled to choose: work in physically demanding positions without adequate protective gear, or go on leave.

Take the case of Kelly Mennella, the Sixth Precinct’s officer of the month in April 2000. Months later, when Officer Mennella became pregnant, her requests for light duty were denied. Officer Mennella was forced to use her sick and vacation days and went without pay for part of the time after her child was born.

Officer Mennella had company. Five other plaintiffs in the Suffolk County suit — including Sandra Lochren, a 13-year veteran of the department, who was forced out on leave in her third month of pregnancy after requesting a desk job – are among the many women whom the Suffolk County Police Department has made go on leave, during months when they were willing and able to work, by subjecting them to this discriminatory policy.

Facing a trial date, the county scrambled to change its policies to make them less discriminatory in December. But the county still didn’t get it right. Light duty is now available for non-job-related conditions in some circumstances, but it’s still entirely up to the supervisor. And it’s available for three months only.

Sandra Lochren and Kelly Mennella are not reassured. They know that many of their colleagues need to go on light duty before the third trimester of pregnancy. They think it’s unfair that pregnant officers should have to go out on patrol without protective gear that fits, in violation of department requirements. And they remember too well that this is the Suffolk County Police Department. Despite the court order from 20 years ago, the old-boy network is still alive and well.

Yes, there are more women on the force, but the highest positions remain filled by men. More important, no procedure is yet in place to ensure that whatever light duty assignments are available will be distributed fairly. And too many women on the force have too many stories about being denied light duty when they were pregnant. Indeed, many Suffolk County officers have told us that they conceal their pregnancies for fear that they will be denied a desk job.

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a 31 percent increase in the number of pregnancy discrimination claims it has received since 1992. With more than 70 million American women working today and three-quarters of them having children, many women are still having to choose between their jobs and families.

Nature’s not that complicated. The prime employment years for police officers overlap with the prime years for child bearing. If Suffolk County is going to be an equal opportunity employer for women, it’s going to have to offer meaningful opportunities to continue working during pregnancy, and a light duty policy that makes sense. Women should not have to choose between a career in law enforcement and a family.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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