The Los Angeles Police Department, which in recent years has sparked heated national debate on police brutality and racism, may be poised to ignite yet another - this time over internal bias against women.
Details are scheduled for release today about a secretive, all-male "club" within the LAPD, allegedly formed in the 1980s to harass women officers and drive them from the force.
Already, national women's groups are calling for further investigation of the findings of the Police Commission, a civilian group that for the past 18 months has examined evidence of sexism inside the LAPD.
Advance reports of the findings, parts of which were leaked to the New York Daily News last week, point to a brazen disdain by some LAPD male officers for their female counterparts. But the transcripts also may prompt precincts across the nation to take stock of how far they've come in achieving gender equality in their ranks - and how far they still have to go.
"It depends on the department where you are," says Constance Maki of the International Association of Women Police. "Some departments have faced the issue, and they've moved on. Other departments use these covert tactics; other departments make it so difficult for [female cops] that the women don't last."
Known as Men Against Women (MAW), the informal organization inside the LAPD formed in the mid-1980s after a federal court ordered the department to hire more women. Former LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman claims that he headed the group, according to the New York Daily News report, which is based on partial transcripts of taped interviews with Mr. Fuhrman.
The tapes originally surfaced during the O.J. Simpson murder trial and were used by the defense to demonstrate racism in the LAPD. They recorded Fuhrman's conversations with aspiring screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny between 1986 and 1994; since then, he has said he exaggerated the truth when he spoke with her.
"When Americans see the transcripts regarding this club, they will be truly shocked at the level of hatred toward women in this police force," says Penny Harrington of the National Center for Women and Policing, who has also seen parts of the findings. "The transcripts will also give credence to the widespread stories that have been heard from women for decades in police forces ... [but] to which people have responded, 'Yeah, right.' "
According to the transcript-based news report, Fuhrman says MAW had 145 members in five of 18 police divisions during the mid-1980s. He also reveals that it held mock trials of male officers who were accused of fraternizing with women. Such tribunals often occurred after midnight in parking lots where participants would drink beer and sentence fellow officers to silent treatment and other means of ostracization.
A LAPD watch commander, Doug Raymond, says the department has no comment on the allegations.
Although Fuhrman was removed from the LAPD after the Simpson trial, "widespread sexual harassment and orchestrated intimidation and threats against women on the force remain a serious problem in the LAPD," says Ms. Harrington, who notes hundreds of complaints to her office in recent years.
Because of such complaints, and bolstered by today's revelations, the National Center for Women and Policing is joining with the Feminist Majority Foundation in calling for an independent probe of gender bias within the LAPD. They want more funding for an independent inspector general who reports to the Police Commission.
A 1981 federal consent decree requires the LAPD to be 20 percent female; the City Council has mandated 45 percent. Currently, the 9,400-member force is 17.2 percent female, short of the target but better than the average of 14.7 for the nation's largest cities.
Still, America has made some strides in heightening women's role in policing, many say. "I will see a female officer doing something and think, 'Wow, that just wasn't part of my frame of reference 20 years ago,' " says Capt. Bobbie Owens of the Austin, Texas, police department.
But, some officers warn, bastions of overt sexism do exist on many forces. Ms. Maki tells of a woman who was harassed for months before transferring to another assignment. Fellow officers put pictures of nude women in her in-box, urinated in her patrol car, and would leave jobs unfinished to make her look bad, Maki says.
Women in Blue
Percentage of female officers in city forces across the US.
Detroit 30% *
Pittsburgh 29% *
Madison, Wis. 28% *
Los Angeles 17%
New York 14%
San Francisco 13%
* Departments with the highest percentage of women in the nation.
Source: US Justice Department