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May 10th, 2006 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Hear No Evil, See No Evil...

Accusations faced by Police Chief Derrick Foxworth prove rare in a bureau where few officers ever face lawsuits for sexual discrimination.

     
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IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
In April 2000, Portland Police Officer Leslie Snuggerud opened the front door to her Northeast Portland home and greeted officer Juan Arizmendez, who had come by to reclaim a pickup truck he'd let her borrow.

But instead of holding out his hand for the keys, Snuggerud says, her friend and fellow officer grabbed her and threw her onto the couch. She says he pressed his lips against her face, groped her and tried to tear off her clothes.

Snuggerud fought back, kicked him out, and resolved to keep the incident to herself. An eight-year veteran of the police force, she had seen the taunting and public embarrassment that dogged other women who had reported abuse. "People tend to look at you as a rat," she says, "and they treat you that way."

Snuggerud's story, which has never been reported publicly, suggests there may be similar untold stories within the Portland Police Bureau, and that only the most extraordinary examples, like the recent accusations of desk clerk Angela Oswalt against Chief Derrick Foxworth, make it into the open.

While a city investigation continues into Oswalt's charges that Foxworth sexually harassed her, WW made a public-records request for lawsuit notices against the Police Bureau for claims involving sexual harassment or abuse over the past 10 years.

The names of just eight complainants turned up, including Snuggerud, 39, who now is on medical leave for a back injury.

Five of the eight claims were settled with a cash award from the city, ranging from about $5,000 to $20,000. The rest were denied.

The city would not provide information on similar cases that have yet to be resolved, citing attorney-client confidentiality rules.

Snuggerud says the small number of settled claims is not evidence of improving conditions for women.

"There are some you don't even know about," she says. "There are others that were never even reported."

Although she intended to keep quiet, Snuggerud eventually broke down weeks after the April 2000 incident and told another officer at work. Following bureau policy, he went straight to their supervisors with the allegations.

Despite an internal affairs investigation, which led to her attacker's resignation and a probe by Multnomah County prosecutors that could have resulted in a misdemeanor charge, the case with Arizmendez ended in a civil settlement (amended by a confidentiality agreement to keep the dollar amount secret) and the assurance that the officer's court record would always include his offense.

According to Portland lawyer Tom Steenson, who specializes in employment discrimination, allegations of sexual discrimination on the job often get judged on the subjective questions of "who said what and when it was said."

Most cases, he says, don't come with incriminating emails like the ones Foxworth sent Oswalt.

Even more foreboding to potential whistle-blowers is the fact that federal law caps sexual-discrimination awards against large employers, including municipalities, at $300,000.

Snuggerud says a few hundred thousand dollars, minus lawyers' fees, wouldn't be enough to convince most female officers to endure the gauntlet of derision from the rank and file.

"It didn't matter what the truth was," she says of the reaction to her claim. "The general attitude was that I never should have come forward with that allegation."

 
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