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Female officer sues Hull police force

Chief, others accused of harassment

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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A female police officer in Hull has filed a scathing harassment lawsuit against the department’s chief and two top commanders, alleging the men regularly demeaned her with sexist slurs, and forced her to mend other officers’ uniforms while off duty.

Wendy Cope-Allen, an officer on the Hull force since 2003, is accusing Police Chief Richard Billings and two other supervisory officers, Captain Robert Sawtelle and Lieutenant Dale Shea, of “pervasive and severe’’ sexual harassment, and contends they routinely denigrated other female employees in the department.

In her lawsuit, filed yesterday in Plymouth Superior Court, Cope-Allen states that the men often called her promiscuous, and said in front of other employees that she had been promoted from dispatcher to officer only because she had sex with the former police chief and a town selectman.

Billings and Shea also are alleged to have told other employees that Cope-Allen was having sex with numerous police officers and firefighters. All the statements are false, the complaint said. Calls to Billings and a spokesman for the Hull Police Department last evening were not returned.

The complaint portrays a male-dominated department where women are the frequent target of derogatory sexual remarks, harassment, and unfair treatment. It includes sworn statements from two other longtime employees supporting Cope-Allen’s allegations. Lauren Walsh, a police dispatcher from 2001 to 2009, and Megan Hanrahan, the town’s animal control officer from 1999 to 2005, said they were also subjected to inappropriate behavior.

The lawsuit, which is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, alleges that the three supervisors displayed “outrageously misogynistic conduct’’ toward the department’s female employees, creating a “pervasively hostile’’ work environment.

In an affidavit filed with the suit, Walsh said leaving the department in 2009 brought “enormous relief to quit working in an environment which was so poisoned by the antifemale hostility shown almost every day by Billings, Sawtelle, and Dale Shea.’’

James P. Brady, who is representing Cope-Allen, said it was her dream to become a police officer, and she didn’t want to sacrifice her seniority and ties to the community by leaving the force.

In her affidavit, Hanrahan stated she often heard Billings and Sawtelle call Cope-Allen a “ ‘slut’ in front of me at the police station,’’ and say that she “got her job because she is a little flirt.’’

The lawsuit states that Cope-Allen is certified to investigate domestic violence and sexual assault cases, and has worked with the DARE school program.

Before being promoted, Cope-Allen was a police dispatcher from 1997-2002. She had previously worked for the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department.

In her career with the Hull department, she has not been reprimanded for misconduct or poor performance, the complaint stated. Yet, it said, Cope-Allen’s supervisors insisted she work as the “department seamstress,’’ repairing uniforms largely without compensation.

“I have seen her working at her sewing machine in the police station on days when she was not scheduled to work and I have seen other officers toss parts of uniforms to her for repair,’’ Hanrahan said in the complaint.

Walsh’s affidavit stated that she often saw Cope-Allen sewing uniforms when off duty.

She also stated that Billings often used sexually demeaning terms while giving Cope-Allen instructions during her shifts, and that Sawtelle and Shea “routinely demeaned’’ female employees.

Shea often made crude remarks about Allen’s “tight pants’’ and sexually suggestive comments to other officers and dispatchers while listening to her radio transmissions, Walsh contended. Shea and Sawtelle also insulted Cope-Allen’s intelligence in front of co-workers, and said she didn’t know what she was doing on patrol, she stated.

The lawsuit also alleges that Sawtelle harassed Cope-Allen when she was communicating with dispatchers, insisting she repeat her transmissions even when they were clearly audible.

Walsh had challenged Sawtelle on his conduct, according to the complaint, but he threatened to fire her when she did. “Shut the [expletive] up or you’re not gonna have a paycheck and you can start looking for another job,’’ she quotes him as saying.

The men also subjected female employees to vulgar descriptions of sex acts and explicit gossip about sexual activities of town leaders, according to the complaint. They often began roll call with “crude talk about pornography and sexually demeaning jokes about women,’’ Walsh said in her sworn statement.

The suit alleges the men often disparaged one female officer they perceived to be gay, and that Sawtelle made a remark about the breasts of an employee’s 12-year-old daughter.

The suit alleges that the treatment of female employees markedly deteriorated when Billings became chief in 2005.

The suit alleges that when Cope-Allen put in a request for two weeks of family leave after adopting a 2-year-old girl from foster care, Sawtelle denied it.

The next year, when Cope-Allen’s teenage son died in a hockey accident, Billings and Sawtelle again denied her extended time off, and insisted she return to work within two weeks, it states.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.