Calif. mayor ends PD policy asking applicants about sexual assault

Oakland police officials said the policy enabled them to review all police reports in which applicants appeared

By Peter Fimrite
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf ordered an immediate end Sunday to a Police Department policy that forced job applicants to disclose information about whether they had been sexually assaulted.

The mayor’s order came in response to a Chronicle story published Sunday revealing the practice, which legal experts said was highly unusual, discriminatory and possibly illegal.

“Today I ordered the immediate removal of a waiver where OPD applicants authorize the release of confidential records, including those that would disclose whether they are victims of sexual assault,” Schaaf said in a statement.

“Additionally,” the mayor said, “I directed the department to partner with the Oakland Police Commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the department’s recruitment and hiring process to ensure no other barriers discourage the hiring of women or minority applicants.”

Asking job applicants to reveal whether they have ever been sexually assaulted is at best problematic, according to experts. Catherine Sanz, president of Women in Federal Law Enforcement Inc., said questions about a woman’s ties to home and her children have long been considered inappropriate, so one would think sexual assault would also be out of bounds.

“I would look at it as an artificial barrier to eliminate candidates and particularly minority candidates, which is one of the biggest problems law enforcement has,” said Sanz, adding that women make up only 12 percent of the law enforcement workforce. “We know gender bias has a big impact on the policies and procedures that impact the recruitment, hiring, training and promotion of women in the profession.”

The Chronicle checked with police departments in the 10 most populous cities in California and could not find any that ask candidates to disclose information about prior sexual assaults.

Oakland police officials said the requests were being made because they wanted to review all police reports in which applicants appeared. They insisted the candidates were not denied positions for being victims.

The recruits, according to the policy, had to sign and get notarized a form that allowed department staff to conduct background checks on them, authorizing the release of educational transcripts, credit history and other records.

The release form, which has been in use since at least 2011, says that among the information that will be reviewed by background investigators is the applicant’s “local criminal history information ... including if I have been a victim of sexual assault.”

Oakland officials were alerted about the problematic inquiry in 2013. Last month, another woman raised the issue in an email to Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth. Other officials, including Schaaf’s office, were included as recipients.

At least one former applicant told The Chronicle that she believes her response to the question was the reason she was denied a position.

The woman, who first applied in 2013, was passed over for a job as an Oakland cop despite her minority status, fluency in multiple languages, advanced educational degrees and more than 10 years of experience as an officer in other police agencies.

The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has an ongoing lawsuit against a former department saying another officer raped her. She has since filed a discrimination complaint against Oakland police with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

There is disagreement over whether the release form is illegal. Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law School professor who studies equal protection and sex discrimination, said it may be peculiar, but is not necessarily illegal if it is applied equally to both men and women.

But Penny Harrington, a retired police chief in Portland, Ore., who was the first woman to lead a major city police force, expressed horror Sunday that such a requirement had ever been on the books.

“I’m really glad that (Mayor Schaaf) did that, but I’m surprised that they haven’t been sued already,” said Harrington, a longtime police consultant and expert on gender discrimination in policing. “Not many things shock me about what police departments do, but that one really shocks me. I’ve never known another police department that asks about that.”

Harrington said the next order of business is to find out how many women missed out on a job because of this.

“I think it’s clearly illegal on its face,” she said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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