By Greg Cahill
IT SEEMED like a perfect choice. Heather O’Donnell-Mills has law enforcement in her blood–her mother, father, and a brother all did duty as cops–so it wasn’t surprising that the 36-year-old Santa Rosan enrolled at the police academy on Pythian Road in 1990 when she decided to leave clerical work. “I come from a family of cops,” she explains. “It just seemed natural to gravitate toward that.”
Little did O’Donnell-Mills know then that she was heading for a hellish ordeal, becoming the target of what she calls a male-dominated “wolf-pack” mentality at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department after top brass allegedly ignored complaints about a fellow officer who she says taunted her mercilessly.
In October, she received a $47,400 settlement from the county after filing a federal sexual harassment lawsuit. Acting Sheriff Jim Piccinini did not return phone calls this week to comment on her case.
O’Donnell-Mills is not alone. In the past two years, five female deputies and correctional officers have filed similar complaints against male supervisors and co-workers. Since 1991, the county has paid out $1.2 million for various misconduct claims–ranging from use of excessive force to sexual harassment, eight times more than paid out by the comparable-sized Santa Rosa Police Department.
Piccinini has said that he doesn’t know why his agency has been the target of such complaints. But in the past year, the department has been criticized for its mishandling of domestic violence, rape, and child abuse cases; both a recent Sonoma County grand jury report and a 1996 state attorney general’s report found several flaws in the department’s handling of cases involving women. That situation–and the numerous sexual harassment complaints–has led local women’s rights groups to charge that there are fundamental flaws at the agency, which employs about half the number of women as the national average for law enforcement agencies.
The problems are mounting. Last year, ex-deputy Monica Quinn filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department endorses a systematic policy of sexual harassment against women who join the force. Quinn says that her supervisor boasted that he had driven another female deputy to quit through a campaign of harassment. County officials have called her charges unfounded. Her suit is still pending.
In May, the county paid $100,000 to ex-deputy Tamara Bassette after she claimed that her training officer drove her in a patrol car to a secluded spot and tried to kiss and fondle her. A second male co-worker allegedly made discriminating comments and repeated advances to her.
And this spring, Sheriff’s Deputy Ann Duckett, who works on the agency’s sex crimes unit and is often cited by sheriff’s officials as a prime example of how far a woman can advance in the department, startled many when she also filed a sexual harassment complaint.
O’DONNELL-MILLS–who won numerous commendations as a sheriff’s deputy–had some inkling early on that she was in for a rough ride. During her training, two other female deputies had warned her, “Just keep your mouth shut. We have a lot of trouble hanging on to women here, good ones.”
“Both of those women have had complaints [about male deputies] before, too,” she says. “They’ve had their own hell.”
Seated amid the Western-style furnishings, Old West landscapes, horse saddles, and antiques in the living room of her southwest Santa Rosa cottage, O’Donnell-Mills, a riding enthusiast who suffered several injuries on patrol, recently spoke to the Independent about her experience–the first female deputy to discuss publicly sexual harassment encountered at the Sheriff’s Department and her first interview since the settlement.
On a small end table, her brass deputy badge now rests in a wooden frame.
“I was just trying to be the best cop that I could be,” she says of her rocky tenure at the agency. “I was trying to be a good female deputy, or good deputy, and trying to just be myself. They kept saying, ‘Don’t try to be one of the guys.’ I never, ever went in there with the intention of being one of the guys. I entered this job in my early 30s, and I had already formed a sense of self and had quite a bit of life experience.
“I didn’t go in there with any plans to take over or anything. I just wanted to go in and be a good cop.”
According to O’Donnell-Mills, the problems started the first night on patrol when her partner came on to her. During briefings, she says, the same male deputy began drawing pictures of her, complete with earrings, lipstick, and curly hair. “He passed it around and it made me uncomfortable, but I laughed and went along with it,” she recalls. “I thought, This is the way to fit in.”
The harassment continued in what she calls “a hostile . . . malicious fashion” while in the field working the graveyard shift as a patrol deputy. She asked the male offender to change his behavior, that he was hurting her. Instead, she says, he berated her on duty in front of other officers and teased her about asking for backup in tense situations. “If I asked a question at briefing, he’d repeat it for months to tease me,” she recalls. “He always was questioning my judgment. His statements to me on several occasions were: ‘Well, we smell blood. We know you’re hurt, We’re going after you,’ ” she says. “He had called himself a wolf. Basically, it was shut up or put up. He called it a rite of passage, this abuse.
“He told me, ‘Well, I was abused when I first came here.’ “
Frustrated by his attitude, and 18 months after the harassment began, O’Donnell-Mills started the slow, arduous journey through the department’s chain of command. First, she reported the harassment to her patrol sergeant.
“He was very interested in it,” she says. “I thought we could mediate it at that level and keep it as quiet as possible.” But the sergeant was obligated to go to his superior, a patrol lieutenant. “He was very angry and promised that action would be taken against the offender,” she says.
The lieutenant informed then-patrol Captain Piccinini about the problem, and that’s when the mediation stalled, O’Donnell-Mills says. “I initially felt that he cared and he wanted to get to the bottom of this,” she says. “He perceived that there might be a problem. At that point, I didn’t exercise my rights. I should have had a lawyer present. If I had known then what I know now, I possibly could have saved my career.
“But all I wanted to do was just say, ‘Get him off my back. I don’t care what you do.’ I was extremely uncomfortable. I was very, very frightened, and I told [Piccinini] that I was frightened.”
According to O’Donnell-Mills, word got back to her that Piccinini believed the whole affair was just a case of two people who couldn’t get along. But others in the ranks already were harboring resentment that she had reported a fellow officer. A second sergeant warned her: “Just because we wear the same badge and the same uniform does not make us friends.”
“My conclusion was that he was putting himself in an enemy mode,” she says, adding that from then on she was ostracized by many of her co-workers.
Missing in action during this whole episode, she says: Sheriff Mark Ihde. “I didn’t feel like I could [approach him],” she says. “I thought that it would be taken care of. I thought, at this level, Ihde’s hired these guys to take care of this problem. We are trained every year about harassment in the workplace and sexual discrimination. It’s part of the annual training, and they say, ‘Well, we’re all officers, trained and everything.’
“But that’s where the compassion doesn’t come in. That’s where the wolf-pack syndrome comes into play.
“Mark Ihde–when he saw all that was coming down and all the stuff that came down after it for a year and a half later, all the crap that they wrote about me and how they discredited me and ultimately tried to get rid of me, all this stuff–never once said, ‘Hey, come into my office and talk to me. What’s going on?’ I felt like he was completely out of my reach.”
Meanwhile, O’Donnell-Mills believes that she was being held to a higher standard than her male colleagues–a situation that led her to push herself harder and ultimately contributed to four debilitating on-the-job injuries. “A woman can’t just go in there and prove herself once. . . . You got to keep doing it. “
In April 1996, O’Donnell-Mills decided she’d had enough and filed a federal lawsuit. “I knew I was getting nowhere and that these people at the county level weren’t working in my behalf.” Two months later, she resigned from the department. She is now retired from law enforcement.
These days, she is pursuing a new career as a different kind of public servant, studying holistic medicine at the Institute for Educational Therapy in Cotati. “The program will take me through the ranks to become a nutritional consultant, which will lay a foundation for practicing alternative medicine. I’m also studying to be an herbalist,” she says.
“I always had that feeling that I want to help people. So, essentially, I’ve gone from being a cop to granola in a year, and it’s a lot nicer way of life.”
From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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