Lesbian officer awarded $2.6 million after decades of discrimination

A police officer wearing a vest stood by a police car.

A former Ohio Highway Patrol (OHP) officer who faced decades of misogynistic and homophobic discrimination has been awarded more than $2.6 million in damages.

Former trooper Stacey Arnold Yerkes was awarded the sum by a six-person federal jury who found that, from 1994 to 2018, she had been harassed, put under undue scrutiny by her supervisors, and disciplined in a way that was not consistent with the treatment her heterosexual, male colleagues received.

The jury found that award-winning officer Yerkes, who served the patrol for 25 years and is a lesbian, was discriminated against because of her gender and sexual orientation.

The lawsuit went to trial on 31 July and, after six days of testimony, the jury awarded her more than $1.3 million in compensatory damages, more than $624,000 in back pay and more than $684,000 in front pay – or earnings she would have received had she continued working.

‘Try not to screw it up and make females look bad’

The lawsuit alleged that on her first day at work, one of her male colleagues told Yerkes that there had only been one female officer before her, and that she should “try not to screw it up and make females look bad”.

Yerkes allegedly had pornography placed in her work locker by a supervisor, was asked invasive and demeaning questions relating to her sexuality, and had her short hair denigrated as “stupid” and “butch”. When she wore makeup and earrings, a supervisor allegedly commented: “What, is she trying to be a girl now?”

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As part of the lawsuit, it was also alleged that there was a culture of supervisors constantly making sexist remarks about women, calling them misogynistic slurs and making comments such as “women are only promoted here because they are women, not because of merit” and “the only reason women are allowed to perform lower than men is because they are women”.

Yerkes had her request to take family leave for the birth of her son denied, and was allegedly told that her request was “not the same” because she had a wife.

After the family leave request was denied, local Ohio publication The Columbus Dispatch reported that unwarranted disciplinary action became a common occurrence for Yerkes, who accused supervisors of disciplining her for being one minute late to her shift, compared to male colleagues who often arrived almost half an hour late.

She also said she was reprimanded for leaving her police car running and unattended during patrol shifts, which she alleged her male colleagues would do with no disciplinary action taken.

Yerkes went on to file a civil complaint against the Ohio Highway Patrol, as well as against four of her direct supervisors at the Finlay district criminal patrol unit, after she was asked to show a tattoo that had been covered by a medically approved sleeve when doing so may have violated OHP policy.

During trial, the court heard that Yerkes had filed an OHP complaint internally, but claimed that it had never been investigated. The complaint was related to how she believed she was discriminated against and harassed due to her sexual orientation.

Yerkes eventually filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in January 2018. Three days later, she was in the process of being disciplined for her tattoo.

In February 2018, Yerkes was offered a ‘last chance agreement’, something used by law enforcement agencies that requires a person to have no disciplinary actions against them for a certain period of time, or risk losing their job.

According to Yerkes, a condition of the ‘last chance agreement’ was that she withdraw her complaint with the EEOC, which she refused to do. Days later, she retired instead of facing termination.

The OHP has denied all allegations in the lawsuit.

The jury found in favour of Yerkes on all four questions posed to them.

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