Women say discrimination is rampant in Denver’s “alpha-male” Safety Department

Two former jail deputies say they were denied bathroom breaks, forced to pee in plastic bags and on the floor

Denver's downtown jail, overseen by the Sheriff's Department, has been the subject of consistent controversy for years. Sheriff Patrick Firman was hired as a "change agent" for the department, but the mayor — and many others — have been disappointed in his performance. (Photo by Alex Burness)

It was November 2017 and two female Denver sheriff’s deputies had asked for a meeting with their boss demanding the right to pee.

The problem, Sandra Gonzales and Laura Johnson explained to Major Kelly Bruning, was that they often had to wait long periods — sometimes more than an hour — between asking for a bathroom break and the time another deputy would show up to spot them.

Gonzales, Johnson and other female deputies at Denver’s Van-Cise Simonet Detention Center each worked alone watching over dozens of inmates, usually men. Their male colleagues could use the open urinals that are also available to inmates. But for women, the urinals weren’t an option — so they said they were forced to take drastic measures.

“We had a female officer who peed herself. They made her change her clothes and go back in there,” Gonzales said this week. “For me, I went to a closet and (urinated) in a plastic bag.”

On other occasions, Gonzales said, she’d squat in a supply closet and urinate down the same drain where cleaning staff spilled mop water.

Gonzales and Johnson are the latest of about 20 different women who work or worked within the Denver Safety Department who’ve publicly come forward since 2015 to allege work discrimination on the basis of sex. The various complaints and lawsuits the women have filed allege a range of problems, from general lack of support for female employees to outright harassment and retaliation.

The complaints have stemmed from every corner of the Safety Department, which oversees sheriff’s, police and fire services in the city.

One of the most high-profile is the ongoing case filed by Magen Dodge, the former police commander of District 3 in Southeast Denver, who said she suffered sexist treatment and subsequent retaliation from former Police Chief Robert White, including him telling her to prostitute herself at a police function. After speaking out, she said, she was pulled from command — she’d previously overseen 181 employees — and placed in an office in Lakewood where she was physically and socially separated from the rest of the police force, and where she now oversees no one. She filed a gender discrimination complaint in January. White denied wrong-doing and was later cleared by the city.

In the fire department, former Capt. Colley Fisher said she was fired in 2015 in retaliation for her previous filing of two sexual discrimination complaints. A judge ruled last month in favor of Fisher receiving $1.2 million from the city, which includes attorney’s fees and other costs in addition to economic damages. The city has appealed the judge’s finding that there was sufficient evidence of illegal retaliation.

Also in the fire department, Denver paid $75,000 in 2016 to settle claims from former firefighter Camilla VonBurkhardt, who alleged male firefighters had left porn around her workspace to harass her. She called it “psychological menacing.”

In the sheriff’s department, there’s a pending federal lawsuit brought by more than a dozen female jail deputies alleging, among other things, that department brass haven’t done enough to protect female employees from “vile, damaging and degrading” remarks and behavior from male inmates.

“When supervising and guarding male prisoners” — 30-60 at a time, their lawsuit said — “a female deputy is often assigned as the lone deputy in a pod where she is surrounded and outnumbered (by) male prisoners. Sexual remarks are often tinged with threats of violence,” the lawsuit reads. The suit also alleges the women are physically isolated from their male colleagues and as a result of that and other factors are subjected to “increased levels of job stress, job burnout and emotional harm when compared to male deputies.”

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These complaints have all been filed during the tenure of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. The two-term mayor who’s seeking election to a third term on June 4 is being criticized by his opponent, development consultant Jamie Giellis, for creating a culture in which women are harassed, discriminated against and disrespected at work.

“If that’s the type of person you are,” said Giellis, who is vying to become the city’s first woman mayor, “if that’s the type of behavior that to you is acceptable, it’s going to trickle down into the culture of the entire city government.”

Giellis was referring to a string of unwanted, sexually charged text messages Hancock sent to Leslie Branch-Wise, a city policewoman who served on his security detail.

The mayor consistently has refused to call his texts to Branch-Wise, now a police detective, sexual harassment, and said during a mayoral debate this week that the Branch-Wise case “didn’t involve me” because he was not named in a claim Branch-Wise filed and later settled for $75,000. But he did admit to inappropriate behavior — he denies it was sexual harassment, though — and said he apologized to his family, the city and Branch-Wise.

Hancock declined through his spokeswoman to be interviewed for this story.

“Alpha-male subculture”

Gonzales and Johnson’s November 2017 meeting with Bruning wasn’t the first time they had raised discrimination issues related to bathroom breaks. Gonzales first complained in late 2016 and grew so frustrated by early 2017 that she got a doctor’s note that read, “Kindly allow bathroom breaks for this patient every two hours, 5-10 minutes each.” Johnson had raised the issue in a May 2017 email that was copied to Bruning, then-Division Chief Paul Oliva, and Sheriff Patrick Firman.

“It is not alright for us to be treated this way,” she wrote, after waiting more than 45 minutes for relief.

Johnson said a male colleague advised she could use the open urinal.

“I told him, ‘What? I’m not going to take my pants down in front of these people,’” she said this week. She was unwilling to urinate in a bag or down a drain, and instead took the approach of complaining as consistently and vocally as possible over the staff radio system in the hopes that she’d “annoy” her male bosses so much that they’d address the problem.

But, she said, that never happened.

After her initial email complaint, Johnson added, “I was pretty much labelled as difficult and I dealt with a bunch of bullshit.” She said she was repeatedly passed over for job promotions and denied transfer requests.

Having been used to their bosses brushing their concerns aside, the two said they approached the meeting with Bruning with low expectations. Toward the end of their conversation, the major took a phone call from Oliva.

“Hey, Chief,” Bruning can be heard saying on an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Independent.

The volume on his phone was loud enough that Oliva’s voice comes through clearly.

“I just got your text,” Oliva responded. “What the hell is wrong with her?”

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For Gonzales and Johnson, it was bad enough that the lack of bathroom breaks forced women in the jail into embarrassing, and sometimes dehumanizing situations. But it was even worse, they say, that their male colleagues and bosses didn’t seem to take their complaints seriously. In the broader “macho” culture in which male deputies would brag about how long they could go without breaks, they say, female deputies enduring indignities had to go along if they wanted to get along.

“There’s an alpha-male subculture that rewards this kind of behavior,” Johnson said. “And then you’re seen as weak if you demand to be treated like a normal person, or even given the same rights as inmates.”

In their meeting with Bruning, he told them, according to the audio “I mean, when I started with this agency, I would call (for a break) and I’d get, ‘Fuck you, rookie. Figure it out,’” as if to partially justify their mistreatment.

Both say that male colleagues would label them “difficult” or call them a “bitch” when they refused to stop advocating for themselves and other female deputies.

“One time a supervisor called me — I was a couple minutes late — and said, ‘Why are you late?” said Gonzales, who took a pay cut to leave the Sheriff Department last year for a new job in law enforcement. “I told him I was in the bathroom. And he said, ‘You need to learn how to designate your bathroom breaks.’ I didn’t even know what that meant. I said, ‘I’m an adult and I know when I need to go to the bathroom.’”

When the supervisor still didn’t budge, Gonzales said, “I told him, ‘Look, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m on my period and so do I need to give you a calendar to tell you when I’m going to be in the bathroom?’ He said I was being unprofessional.”

Oliva declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sheriff Firman, whom Mayor Michael Hancock recruited from Illinois as a “change agent” in 2015, told The Independent that he “took immediate action” when he heard Gonzales’s and Johnson’s complaints. He said there were “emails, trainings and supervisory meetings” to address the problem, which he said stemmed from a staffing shortage — as in, not enough people at the ready to relieve deputies for breaks — and from poor communication.

“I don’t expect any of our staff to have to deal with (that),” Firman said this week. “When people, need a break, they need a break.” About Oliva’s comments to the deputies, he said, “That’s not how I expect my leaders to interact and to act with staff. … I don’t think anybody would expect that that would be appropriate.”

Firman pointed to his department’s 2015 establishment of a gender equity advisory committee and said that despite the complaints of Johnson and Gonzales, plus the slew of separate lawsuits and complaints by other women in the Safety Department, he considers Denver’s Sheriff Department to be a national leader in gender equity.

Gonzales rejects that claim.

“The department gets away with so much,” she said. “Other (women) have mentioned to me that they’ve seen how they’ve treated me and Laura for speaking out, that they’re scared to come forward because of that. I know it’s still happening.”

Misconduct in the form of sexual harassment and gender discrimination is still happening within the Safety Department, according to annual reports from Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor — the city’s police and sheriff civilian oversight agency — which show there were a series of other relevant cases involving unnamed male officers and deputies between 2016 and 2018. They include:

  • A male deputy in December 2016 “made numerous unwanted and sexually harassing advances towards a female deputy by asking to kiss her, asking for her phone number, and repeatedly hugging and making other physical contact with her,” the report says. The deputy was ordered to serve a 30-day suspension, but he successfully appealed to get that reduced to 18 days.
  • A male officer who had transported a combative, intoxicated woman to detox in July 2017 “shoved the woman’s head down and against the wall and pushed on it with his hands while sitting on her with the right side of his body,” the report says. “He also yelled at her and called her a ‘dumb bitch.’” He was suspended for 10 days.
  • A male sergeant made “sexually inappropriate remarks” in August 2017 to a female officer in the presence of colleagues, which, the report says, “made the officer uncomfortable.” The sergeant was suspended 10 days.
  • A male officer working an off-duty job at a bar in February 2018 made “unwanted sexual advances” toward a female employee at the bar, the report says, adding that this officer had been charged in 2005 for similar behavior. He resigned prior to a disciplinary finding in the 2018 case.

“Oh, you want to do a man’s job?”

Cathy Phelps is the executive director for the Denver-based Center for Trauma and Resilience, which works with victims of a myriad of offenses, including harassment and discrimination. She says Gonzales’s and Johnson’s experience in Denver’s Sheriff Department typifies an all-too-common lack of willingness in male-dominated workplaces to accommodate even the most basic needs of women.

“Maybe it’s not about peeing. Maybe it’s about being on your menstrual cycle and needing to take care of that,” Phelps said. “I think there’s this undercurrent of, oh, you want to do a man’s job? Want to be in a man’s arena? Then you’re going to be treated like a man.”

Gonzales and Johnson said they felt they were isolated as a result of speaking out. Johnson said she applied for several promotions and wasn’t given an interview.

Both had experience working in jails and prisons before joining the Denver Sheriff Department, but they said they weren’t subjected to such indignities in their other jobs, even though those workplaces were also dominated by men.

The isolation and retaliation they said they experienced were echoed in other recent instances of alleged sexual discrimination and harassment within the Denver Safety Department. Just under 23% of the 4,000-plus employees in Safety are women, according to a department spokeswoman.

“You can’t fix a problem when it’s run by people promoting the problem,” Johnson said.

In a debate with Giellis earlier this week, Hancock said that city workers who are experiencing sexual harassment should report their complaints to the city’s “fraud hotline.”

Johnson – who now works in child protective services in Nebraska – said she left Denver feeling like there was “no support” for women in the safety department, particularly if those women were reporting alleged misconduct or mistreatment. She and Gonzales said they knew female colleagues struggling with the same problems about bathroom breaks, but who were scared to report for fear of retaliation and not being taken seriously.

“I just think that women hold no value there,” Johnson said.

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