Do law enforcement officers have the same rights as civilian employees when they become pregnant? The question will be before the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) this week as representatives from National Center for Women and Policing and the IACP’s own Diversity Coordinating Panel nudge the chiefs into action with a “model policy” they hope will end the vast disparities in treatment.
For women who work in law enforcement, the change is long overdue.
More than 30 years after the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act made discrimination against pregnant workers illegal, law enforcement agencies are still caught in a “damned if you do, damned if you don't” dilemma. Female law enforcement officers from Minnesota to Massachusetts are battling management to stave off mandatory duty restriction, extended unpaid leave, and loss of seniority when they become pregnant.
But for law enforcement departments, the lack of clear policy guidelines has complicated treatment. In June, for example, three female Oklahoma corrections officers who charged discrimination after being placed on restricted duty in 2007 when they informed their superiors of their pregnancy were upheld in a Justice Department ruling. But in Suffolk County, New York, the case of a pregnant park police officer who was denied restricted duty in 2007 and forced to take unpaid leave was just decided in the officer's favor.
“It's kind of sad that in 2009 we're not further along,” says Col. Deborah Campbell of the New York State Police and a member of the National Center for Women and Policing’s advisory board. “The IACP has a model policy on everything – except pregnancy.”
Campbell and her colleagues are proposing that departments view pregnancy as a “continuum.” Under their model, officers would move from patrol work in the first trimester to so-called “light duty” as the pregnancy progresses.
The key to the proposed policy is that mandatory “equal treatment” policies must be refined to take into account the special circumstances of female biology.
Dealing With Biology
More than a generation since women began joining law enforcement in significant numbers, approximately 11 percent of the nation's sworn officers are female. Like their male colleagues, most enter the force in their early 20s. And while many may postpone motherhood, at some point, pregnancy is likely to become a reality. As Rich Roberts of the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) puts it: “It's what women do. It's what's supposed to happen.”
But despite this biological fact, what an officer can expect when she tells her commanders that she is pregnant varies widely across the country. Margaret Moore, the Director of the National Center on Women and Policing, says that big urban departments treat pregnant as a “routine event,” but smaller departments “don't seem to know how to handle it.”
In Boston, a pregnant officer who wishes to come in off the streets needs, essentially, a doctor's note, and is then transferred to light duty that is “consistent with her previous assignment,” according to Jack Parlon, President of Boston's Fraternal Order of Police. A detective, for example, might spend her pregnancy reviewing reports or conducting phone interviews. Patrol officers might be assigned to the station's front desk to handle complaints.
For small departments, on the other hand, “the big question is what is available in the way of light duty,” says the IUPA's Roberts. “If you create a policy that mandates a pregnant officer get light duty and there isn't a slot available, the department is caught in a bind in terms of compliance…I don't know if anyone has a real solution. It comes back to having to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”
But according to female officers and their advocates, the lack of a consistent national policy makes women in law enforcement vulnerable to haphazard treatment and the whims of their superiors.
Moore says that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is simply inadequate when it comes to protecting pregnant employees from unfair treatment. Policing, particularly patrol work, is a physical endeavor. Female officers wrestle suspects, train with firearms, and pull up to situations most of us – especially those carrying a fetus – would steer away from. And so unlike a woman in another profession who can usually perform her duties until at least the third trimester of her pregnancy, a police officer becomes a “problem” the moment she informs her superiors that she is expecting.
In a 2003 paper for the Police Policy Studies Council, Dr. Fabrice Czarnecki spelled out some of the hazards policing can pose for a pregnant women, including lead and noise toxicity from firearms training and the risk of trauma to the fetus and the woman from “physical confrontations.”
Campbell, who worked most of the way through her two pregnancies, agrees that “we don't want employers to just say, 'keep working.' Pregnant women should not be on SWAT, or working near hazardous materials – but provisions can be made.”
Challenging the Police Patriarchy
“Policing is still a male-dominated profession and the standards and norms are designed, intentionally or unintentionally, around the prototypical male officer,” says Maryland attorney Karen Kruger.
Kruger stumbled into the fray when she wrote a research paper called “Pregnancy and Policing: Are They Compatible?” for a class at the American University School of Law.
The paper was published in the Wisconsin Law Journal in mid-2007 and last fall, she and Campbell presided over a panel called “Meeting the Needs of the Pregnant Officer: What Every Law Enforcement Executive Should Know,” at the annual gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“We got a good response,” says Campbell. “It's not so much that the chiefs don't want to accommodate a pregnant officer, it's that they don't know what's the right thing to do.”
Kruger, who is drafting the IACP model policy, has become the de facto legal expert on the topic of pregnancy discrimination against policewomen. She says that there is still a “patronizing attitude” on the part of many male officers when it comes to pregnancy.
“Some men hear pregnancy and think, 'Oh, it's a delicate condition,” she says. “But for many women, it's not delicate until much later. Why should a healthy, capable officer be sitting at home knitting booties?”
Campbell says that while the chiefs she's spoken to seem eager to accommodate a pregnant officer, “unions are often opposed.” In Kruger's paper she cites an example of an officer who couldn't take her complaint about unfair treatment to her union because its president was the same chief who had discriminated against her.
“The unions primarily represent male officers,” says Campbell. “So a chief might try to accommodate a pregnant woman and run into the union saying, that's not fair because you're not making the same accommodation for a man.”
Ron Bartimer, President of Oklahoma's Fraternal Order of Police, says he's only received a few phone calls from pregnant officers who feel they've been treated unfairly during his five years at the helm of the chapter.
“I've had women call and say they want to stay in their car and work,” says Bartimer. “I talk to them and tell them that if they keep working they could harm their baby, and nobody wants anybody to get hurt.”
Bartimer wasn't familiar with the discrimination case brought by the three Oklahoma corrections officers, but when told of the details he was less than sympathetic. “Isn't that something?” he observed. “You're trying to protect your officers and they sue you for it.”
“Equal treatment doesn't work”
When Congress signed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, the law was hailed as a feminist victory. Employers were mandated to treat pregnant women as they'd treat any other temporarily disabled employee, granting them access to modified assignments and medical leave without fear of losing their job.
But for law enforcement, the law cuts both ways. If a male officer breaks his leg over the weekend and there is no light duty available, he isn't always guaranteed a light duty assignment. And, by the logic of the PDA, if a disabled male officer didn't get a modified assignment, a pregnant female officer may not get one either.
The situation is further complicated by law enforcement's rules on “line of duty” injuries, which often yield better temporary assignments than off-duty accidents. “Obviously pregnancy is not a line of duty issue,” says Roberts. “By and large, pregnancy is a voluntary act, as opposed to a broken arm, which is very involuntary.”
This is exactly the logic that Kruger and Campbell are trying to address with their policy. Essentially, they say, you simply cannot equate pregnancy with any other type of disability, partly because it is “the singular biological thing that sets women apart.”
“Equal treatment doesn't work,” says Kruger. “If women are going to have equal opportunity in policing, they have to be treated differently.”
Instead, Kruger's policy proposal is focused on equal results. She proposes a two-phase track for pregnant officers, allowing them to remain on active, if modified, duty in the beginning of their pregnancy, and then to transition to less physically dangerous work in the second and third trimesters.
“We're trying to create stepping stones where duty can evolve as pregnancy evolves,” she says. “There should be a process where a doctor looks at the officer's duties and determines which she can and can't do safely.”
Of course, even if the IACP approves and adopts Kruger and Campbell's model policy, there is no guarantee that departments will implement it.
“As a police chief, you are not mandated by law to accommodate a pregnancy,” explains Campbell. “Can you? Yes – if you are truly sincere about wanting to improve the diversity of your force.”
And that, says Campbell, is the bottom line: If a department – big or small – wants to make itself “the employer of choice” for female officers, accommodating pregnancy can go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Julia Dahl is a Contributing Editor at The Crime Report.
*Photo by NYCArthur/Arthur Eisenberg, via Flickr.