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Your Baby or Your Beat?

Maggie Gram,
New York Civil Liberties Union
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June 5, 2006

I’m checking in from Suffolk County, New York, where today the New York Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU started a federal jury trial in which we hope to show that the Suffolk County Police Department discriminates against female officers by refusing to let them work desk jobs while they’re pregnant.

The case arose from the experiences of the six New Yorkers who are our clients — all of whom are Suffolk County Police Officers, all of whom are women, and all of whom have been pregnant sometime since the year 2000.

2000 is key, because 2000 was the year when the Suffolk County Police Department changed its limited duty policy. Before 2000, any pregnant officer could ask for, and receive, a limited duty assignment – one of the many jobs that consist of working at a precinct desk, with people who walk into the precinct off the street, with prisoners, or in some other “nonconfrontational” position. But in 2000, in what the Department says was an effort to combat widespread abuse of the limited-duty policy, it put an end to those accommodations. The Department’s new policy said that limited duty jobs could go only to officers with “on-the-job injuries.”

(Read: no pregnant officers need apply. Read: If you’re pregnant, keep patrolling the streets at your own peril — or go home, using banked sick days or vacation days or unpaid leave.)

Of course, the Department didn’t offer fitting gun belts or bullet-proof vests to pregnant officers, making staying on the streets a totally treacherous proposition. And of course, the policy didn’t apply to everyone the same way. The Department continued, even after the policy change, to grant limited duty to some favored male officers with injuries and conditions incurred off the job.

The Suffolk County Police Department continues to say, to this day, that the policy was neutral and that it affected everyone equally.

We say they’re forcing women to choose between their careers and their families. We say the county is engaging in pregnancy discrimination, and that that’s against the law.

Jury selection ate up the first half of today. Then came the opening arguments. NYCLU Reproductive Rights Project attorney Cassy Stubbs began by laying out the issue at the heart of the matter: “This is a case about Suffolk County’s pregnancy penalty.”

Cassy explained that under the new policy the six plaintiffs in the case had been sent home even though they had been “ready, willing, and able” to work. She said that the pregnant officers who worked on patrol were denied fitting bullet-proof vests or gun belts. She gave examples of the uneven – and often unfair — way that the Suffolk County Police Department had implemented the policy.

Cassy introduced the jury to Officer Christine Blauvelt, one of our clients, who was sent home while a male officer who had an off-the-job illness was granted a desk job. And she told stories like Patricia O’Brien’s. Officer O’Brien had to get into her patrol car with a gun belt that didn’t work and with her bullet-proof vest on the seat next to her; when she decided that risk was too great, she went home, took all her accumulated sick leave and vacation leave, and then went unpaid.

County attorney Chris Termini followed up with his own opening argument. He said that his Police Department had decided to exclude pregnant officers and others from limited duty because some people were abusing their nonconfrontational assignments. Under the old policy, he said, some officers took limited duty positions and never gave them up. “Some officers had become so overweight, so untrained, that they didn’t even know what to do in a patrol car any more,” he told the jury. “… Suffolk County took the position that this department must modernize, must be efficient.”

And what did modernization look like? What did efficiency looked like? It all looked like the end of limited duty for pregnant officers. Suffolk County changed its limited duty policy so that it was available only to officers with on-the-job injuries. The attorney for the County emphasized that this policy was “an across-the-board policy,” that it was “neutral,” that it affected everyone. But he did not address or acknowledge that the new policy had most affected pregnant officers — who, as Cassy had just pointed out, comprise “the group that used light duty the most, but abused it the least.”

The day ended with the testimony and cross-examination of one plaintiff, Kelly Mennella, and the first half of the testimony of one witness, Suffolk County Chief of Detectives Kenneth Rau. In the next two weeks we’ll see five more plaintiffs, an expert economist, and a number of other witnesses. Cross your fingers for us — and for these officers who have had the courage to challenge this travesty of justice.

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