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Women allege discrimination, retaliation on male-dominated Boston police force

Commissioner William Gross, appointed last year as the first black leader of the city’s police force, rebutted any assertion that the department is hostile to women.
Commissioner William Gross, appointed last year as the first black leader of the city’s police force, rebutted any assertion that the department is hostile to women. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File)

Donna Gavin, the Boston Police Department’s lone female lieutenant detective, describes being retaliated against and undermined by her former captain because she is a woman.

Pamela Besold, a sergeant detective who has spent 22 years on the force, says she has been treated with hostility because she is a lesbian.

And two female civilians in the department say they were discriminated against because of their race and ethnicity.

These allegations, spelled out in four lawsuits in state and federal court since last year, offer perspective into the male-dominated police department, where few women are part of the command staff or hold key leadership posts. The women describe a hostile work environment in which they were passed over for crucial assignments or faced retaliation when they complained about how they were being treated.

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“It wears you down,’’ said Denise DePina Reed, an officer who served on the force for more than three decades before retiring two years ago.

Commissioner William Gross, hailed for his historic appointment last year as the first black leader of the department, declined to address specific court cases, citing ongoing litigation. But he rebutted any assertion that the department is hostile to women.

“No, not on my watch,’’ said Gross, adding that he supports equality for all of the department’s nearly 2,950 sworn officers and civilian employees. He said he urges all employees to report their complaints to him or the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination if they are unsatisfied.

“We’ve come a long way from the past,’’ Gross said. “I’ve been on this job since I was 18, and so I affirm the commitment that everybody at [the Boston Police Department] should have a workplace that is respectful, where everyone [works] . . . in a harassment-free environment.”

Gross noted that he promoted a woman, Nora Baston, to lead the new Bureau of Community Engagement. Baston did not respond to requests for comment.

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Gross’s predecessor, William Evans, similarly defended the department’s record. “I always thought we treated everyone fairly. I thought everyone had equal opportunity; everyone was treated the same,” Evans said. “I thought we had a really good record in dealing with issues when it came to gender.”

Women represent 13 percent of the department’s nearly 2,200 sworn officers and 66 percent of the department’s nearly 760 civilian employees. By comparison, female officers make up 18 percent of the police force in New York City, nearly 16 percent in Baltimore, and nearly 22 percent in New Orleans.

It has been nearly a century since the first female officers joined Boston’s police force — and 50 years since women were allowed to carry guns or wear uniforms. Yet female officers remain largely underrepresented in high-ranking positions.

There are just four women on the department’s 24-member command staff: a superintendent and three deputy superintendents.

While sworn female commanders oversee the human trafficking, sexual assaults, firearms analysis, and civil rights units, only men run the elite homicide unit and the Youth Violence Strike Force, commonly known as the gang unit. (Department officials said that to the best of their knowledge no woman has applied for or shown interest in commanding those units, and they noted a woman ran the criminal investigation division, which oversees the homicide unit, nearly a decade ago.)

Today, only one woman — Baston — is the head of one of the department’s seven major bureaus. Of the 62 units in the seven bureaus, 24 are headed by women, department data show. But there is just one woman among the force’s 24 captains.

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In its 164-year history, there has been one Boston female commissioner, Kathleen O’Toole, who served two tumultuous years from 2004 to 2006.

Department officials said they are looking to boost the number of women, through recruitment and outreach at local colleges and partnerships with the city. Twelve of the 35 members of the police’s revived cadet program are female, said police spokesman Sergeant John Boyle.

“The goal is to get 50 percent women,’’ he added.

But some current and former female officers have said they are not taken seriously and face retaliation when they complain.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, citing “investigatory materials,” would not release the total number of pending investigations into gender-discrimination complaints filed by female Boston Police Department employees.

MCAD did note that it closed six complaints during the last five years, including the cases involving Gavin, Besold, and the two civilians — who have all decided to file state or federal lawsuits instead of proceeding through MCAD.

The women involved in those four suits declined to comment, some through their lawyers or confidantes. They cite a police policy against making disparaging comments in public about the department — a rule some officers say is a violation of their First Amendment rights and selectively enforced.

But their stories are familiar to the leadership of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. Police Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, the organization’s president, said it is easy for women to feel second-class on the force.

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“They are often overlooked by virtue of their gender,’’ Chrispin said.

He said some women don’t want to complain because they fear how they will be viewed, not only by their supervisors but also by their fellow officers.

“They end up being viewed as a complainer, whiner,’’ Chrispin said.

The gender discrimination lawsuit brought by Lieutenant Detective Gavin, the former head of the Human Trafficking and Crimes Against Children units, is being heard in US District Court of Massachusetts.

Gavin’s suit alleges that her former commanding officer, Captain Detective Mark Hayes, put her in charge of those units in May 2016 but consistently undermined her authority.

Her lawsuit, which includes allegations of a hostile work environment based on gender, said she had “little to no input or influence over personnel decisions” involving the detectives and sergeants she supervised. It also said that Hayes criticized her work performance and decision-making in an e-mail to her subordinates and outside agencies and that she was frozen out of a key operation, which she said was in retaliation to her filing a formal complaint about her mistreatment.

After she filed that complaint, her lawsuit said, she was investigated instead.

“Throughout Gavin’s tenure as commander [of the Human Trafficking and Crimes Against Children units], Hayes has repeatedly attempted to undermine her authority with subordinates, delegitimize her position/rank, and humiliate and embarrass her,’’ her lawsuit said. (Gavin was recently transferred to the police academy, Boyle said.)

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Gavin’s attorney, Nick Carter of Todd & Weld LLP, said his client “stands by her claims 100 percent.”

Besold, one of nine female sergeant detectives, filed suit in January in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging among other assertions discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. She argued that she has been repeatedly passed over for key promotions in the homicide, drug control, and Youth Violence Strike Force units — in favor of a less qualified male officer or heterosexual officers.

Besold’s lawsuit also accused the department of other instances of unfair treatment, including being involuntarily transferred out of her unit in 2017 after she complained to her former superintendent, Frank Mancini, that a male colleague was using profane language that disparaged women, her complaints said. She also said Mancini , who has since retired, later passed her over for a less qualified male sergeant when she sought a promotion in her former unit, which conducts background investigations on anyone applying to the department.

Also, she said that she was placed on administrative leave in November 2017 and her badge and weapon were confiscated, her lawsuit said.

She said she only learned during an internal affairs probe in late January 2018 that a female colleague, Sergeant Detective Carmen Curry, had accused her of using racially offensive language when referencing William Gross, then the police superintendent in chief. In her lawsuit, Besold denied using the term.

Beth Myers, a Boston attorney representing Besold, said the department’s discipline of her client was “grossly disproportionate” when compared to male officers, adding that it “suggests that [the department’s] true motivation is my client’s gender and that she stands up” against inequality.

The Police Department and Mancini denied her accusations of discrimination, retaliation, and subjecting Besold to a hostile work environment, records show.

In their response to her MCAD complaint, they pointed to “several issues” with her work performance, including that she and her team were slow when conducting background investigations. They said the sergeant detective who was chosen for the promotion instead of her was more qualified and experienced.

The department declined to address allegations in the lawsuit from Besold and the other women, citing the ongoing litigation. It also declined the Globe’s request to speak to Hayes, Curry, and Mancini.

In an interview with the Globe, Evans, the former commissioner, called some of allegations against the department “unfortunate” and “frivolous.” He also defended Mancini, saying though “not the most friendly guy,’’ he treated everyone with respect.

“He was a straight shooter,’’ Evans added. “His integrity is 100 percent.”

Two women on the civilian side of the department are also suing, alleging racial discrimination. Bernadette Holiday, who is black, and Yara Figueroa, who is Puerto Rican, filed lawsuits in Suffolk Superior Court in February, alleging a “rigged workplace for civilian employees” that lacks diversity in hiring and promotion.

The lack of promotions, they allege, was a signal to people of color that their success has defined limits, said their attorney, Sophia Hall, at the Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Despite her repeated efforts, Holiday says the department has refused to promote her since she became head clerk in the Operations Division since 2003.

She and Figueroa, a personnel officer, had applied for the same promotion as principal personnel officer — a job that, they said, went to a white female employee with less experience and fewer qualifications. They said the woman was given extra training for the new role.

“That was the last straw,’’ said Hall, noting that the department often faults the complex civil service laws for its diversity numbers. “No such barriers exist for civilian employees. Our clients are proof that something more insidious is going on at BPD.”


Meghan Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons.