To some, former Seattle police burglary detective Jerry Bickford was a by-the-book disciplinarian with an unblemished 23-year record. But to his superiors at the Seattle Police Department, Bickford was a sexist to be weeded out of the department. Among his transgressions: telling "dumb blonde" jokes—which, as one of Bickford's supervisors later testified, is not allowed in a department "where you need to be more politically correct" today.
An impartial jury found that ludicrous. In a King County Superior Court trial last year—one that was never reported until now—the SPD was held liable for wrongfully terminating Bickford, and jurors awarded the veteran detective $1,515,000, most of it for emotional damage.
Last Tuesday, the city filed an appeal.
The Bickford dismissal, and subsequent lawsuit, illustrates what some cops and attorneys say is wrong with a department internal investigation system that's at the heart of today's ongoing police misconduct scandal. Critics say the system can be abused and circumvented at will, or, as in this case, manipulated by the department to rid itself of an officer who failed its correctness test.
Bickford claims, and the jury apparently agreed, that city legal and police officials stonewalled his attempts to prove his innocence in an effort to protect the department's cozy self-examination system. (The SPD did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the course of their legal fight, Bickford and his attorney, William M. Taylor—himself a onetime cop and commander in the SPD's Internal Investigation Section (or IIS)—pried loose some of the department's innermost secrets. They discovered, for instance, that some internal investigative documents in a sexual harassment case had been "stolen" from the department, and that the SPD's personnel administrator was fired for having sex with a job applicant.
All this is part of the department's internal history now being reviewed by a special mayoral panel. Mayor Schell called for the review after longtime detective Sonny Davis was indicted for the alleged theft (and return) of $10,000 at a crime scene. At least 13 officers, including internal investigators, knew some or part of the details of the two-and-a-half-year-old incident but never formally reported it.
Davis says the charges are false and the result of an internal department feud, and his attorney has promised to dish the dirt behind the scandal. The Bickford case may be a preview of those coming detractions.
According to court files and interviews, Detective Jerald Bickford was accused of harassment in August 1994 by a member of his East Precinct theft/burglary investigative team, Detective Deanna Karst. She said Bickford regularly criticized her investigations and work performance and, she felt, treated her differently than the male detectives. She said he spoke out against affirmative action and told dumb-blonde jokes. "One time in my own defense, I told him I paid good money for my blond hair," she said in a statement filed with the court. "Sgt. Bickford told me it didn't matter if I wasn't a natural blonde, I was still a female."
Karst filed a complaint against Bickford with their section commander, Capt. Toni McWashington. The captain told Bickford of the complaint—labeling it sexual harassment—but would not give specifics, Bickford says.
Bickford left the department that day stressed and depressed, he says. After consulting with a psychiatrist, he took medical leave. On the job since 1971, he would never return.
An internal investigation by the IIS took three months, during which Bickford remained in the dark about what exactly he was accused of, although he was sent a list of 28 questions to answer from a department civil rights officer. Among them, he was asked if he ever made "inappropriate comments" about women, minorities, or female officers, did he tell "dumb-blonde jokes," did he ask Karst who she was dating, and did he refer to the captain who had taken the complaint as the "Snow Queen"?
(According to court documents, Capt. McWashington—while a lower-ranking officer—had been terminated from the department in the 1970s "for involvement with cocaine." She later won her job back through a civil-service appeal. But Bickford's attorney says in a court statement, "the 'snow queen' sobriquet has followed her since that time. She is frequently so referred to by senior members of the department." And Lt. John Carson, who reviewed the complaint against Bickford, also said during a deposition that "Toni has been called the 'snow queen' now by some people. She will never live that case down.")
Once the IIS completed its probe, the next step was a review of the allegations and recommendations by upper-level command officers. Bickford repeatedly called seeking information about any findings, but received no responses, he says. Normally, a line review takes a few weeks. For reasons unexplained, this one dragged on for almost four months (one commander took one and a half days to review the file, another took more than two months).
Bickford was hoping to return to work, but he wanted first to know what he was accused of, in order to defend himself and settle the dispute. His physician said Bickford was suffering from major depression because he couldn't learn details of the accusations—and therefore was unable to return to work.
Faced with a deadline, Bickford appeared before the Seattle Police Pension Board on January 25, 1995 and was handed a disability retirement.
He left the department, he says, without ever knowing exactly what he was accused of and began to seek his records. It took a lawsuit to obtain his investigative file. "Only then," says Bickford's attorney Taylor, "did Bickford learn that, while most of Detective Karst's allegations against him had been classified as unfounded, discipline had been recommended against him for alleged 'derogatory comments about female officers, affirmative action, and a female commander.'"
Eventually, Bickford filed a civil lawsuit claiming he was in effect wrongly fired from the department under civil service rules. By withholding information that ultimately prevented him from returning from medical leave, he claimed, the department knowingly forced his retirement—or termination. While seeking back pay and future medical treatment expenses, a humiliated Bickford also sought to clear his record.
Taylor says that City Attorney Mark Sidran's office took a "stubborn and aggressive resistance to discovery." Sidran's office won't comment, but in court papers the city indicates it was merely mounting an aggressive defense to win the case and had to withhold information due to personal privacy issues.
Taylor had to go back to the court for orders demanding records and files from the police department, and was forbidden to talk to SPD personnel at or above the rank of sergeant, he says. "The difficulties in uncovering the facts of Mr. Bickford's bungled investigation and subsequent constructive discharge from behind the city's protective wall of silence," Taylor wrote in a brief, " . . . have at times seemed all but insurmountable."
At about the same time, in late 1995, Karst, too, filed a lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department, claiming "harassment, retaliation, and discrimination on virtually every assignment she held," citing numerous male co-workers including Bickford.
Seven months into her suit, and about the time Bickford filed his, the city named Bickford as a co-defendant in the lawsuit brought by Karst, thus making Bickford culpable with the city for damages. "I maintained then and maintain now," says attorney Taylor, "that impleading him [adding him to the case] was nothing more than a tactic to intimidate Bickford while at the same time forcing him to help the city defend against Detective Karst's suit." Karst eventually lost her lawsuit. (It's being appealed.)
Taylor spent almost 500 hours, gratis, helping Bickford defend in the Karst case, and worked another 1,500 hours on his lawsuit against the city—2,000 hours in two years. Taylor agreed at the beginning he would take a third of any judgment on a contingency basis, meaning both could wind up with nothing. The ex-cops were driven in part by the injustice, they say, as well as to campaign against abuses in the internal investigation unit where both had once worked.
They were left shaking their heads after finding out how some of the city's top brass felt about sexual tolerance. One commander, Lt. John Carson, suggested that almost any kind of gender comments, even in jest, were forbidden under the "sensitivity issues" established by Chief Norm Stamper. "The thing is, you need to be more and more politically correct. I don't think it [a dumb-blonde joke, for one] is appropriate no matter what it is . . . we are getting to a point now that if you are smart, you don't tell jokes."
But what was perceived as sexual harassment in Bickford's case was in fact not, Bickford told the jury when his case finally went to trial last summer. He insisted he didn't treat Karst any differently than male detectives. He was critical of anyone, he said, who had "job performance problems," and he had documented them in Karst's case. The city presented more than 20 witnesses, but none could demonstrate Bickford had any kind of record of harassing anyone sexually. Several witnesses commended Bickford's tenure, and one city witness called him an "excellent officer." The jury seemed to think so, too. Bickford had asked for $1.3 million in damages, but the panel gave him $1.5 million—$950,000 of it for his "pain and suffering."
Says one police officer turned cynical by this and other mishandled internal disputes: "The jury was angry. And they were right. The bad news is, I don't see this case as all that exceptional."