Police officers are a vital part of a functioning, democratic society, and they often have a unique place in our community, too. Most community members have a job they go to for a set amount of time. Police officers, on the other hand, are always viewed as upholding public safety and the law even when they’re not on the clock, whether they’re wearing their police uniform or not. Because police uphold laws, it can be a particularly trying and confusing situation for an entire community if someone accuses a police officer of sexual harassment.
If you are a police officer who has been accused of sexual harassment, your professional career, your personal life, and the health of your police precinct and the larger community can all suffer. Because of your public life, you have many resources for fighting such a claim against you.
This article provides a brief overview of sexual harassment in California, both in and out of the workplace. It also addresses common strategies for defending against sexual harassment and provides resources to prevent and defend against such accusations. Importantly, this information is not legal advice and you should not understand it as such.
Sexual Harassment Attorney has years of experiencing defending police officers across California from accusations of sexual harassment. We understand the complicated nature of such a legal action, as well as the many ways it can affect all the parties involved, beyond just those in the courtroom. Contact us today for help navigating your defense.
Understanding Sexual Harassment in California
Sexual harassment is a term that is thrown around often and it sometimes seem vague or unspecific. Understanding sexual harassment is the first step in understanding accusations and charges of such a claim.
At its very basic, sexual harassment is one type of many kinds of sex discrimination. Laws define sexual harassment as any unwelcome act or behavior that is unwanted by the person upon whom it is being bestowed. This can include requests or demands for sexual favors, sexual advances, or other verbal, physical, or mental conduct that is sexual in nature.
Workplace Sexual Harassment
If a police officer or other law enforcement official is accused of sexual harassment by a colleague, boss or manager, or even a subordinate, laws that prohibit sexual harassment in places of work are invoked.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a federal law that makes sexual harassment and other discrimination illegal in any workplace that employs 15 or more people. The State of California has additional protections against sexual harassment. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act makes sexual harassment illegal in all types of employment situations, and it requires employers to train certain personnel on ways to prevent and handle sexual harassment.
California’s discrimination laws break sexual harassment into two types:
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment, in which the alleged harasser offers something to the subject (victim) in exchange for something else. For instance, “You can keep your job if you have sex with me.”
- Hostile work environment sexual harassment, in which the alleged harasser turns a normal work environment into a hostile environment for one or more employees based on unwelcome conduct that is sexual in nature. For instance, one employee may email other employees unwanted sexual photographs.
Police and Sexual Harassment
Importantly, however, sexual harassment is not illegal only in a law enforcement workplace. Because a police officer’s duty is to serve the citizens of his or her protected area, the police officer has a special relationship with those in the community to which they are assigned.
In the best of circumstances, police officers have a duty to protect, help, and educate people – even saving lives is part of their jobs. So, when a member of the public accuses a police officer or other law enforcement officer of sexual harassment, there is public concern over someone who is supposed to do good who is instead accused of committing a moral wrong.
Unlike other members of our communities, when police officers are “off duty” or not working a shift, they are still seen as community members who are supposed to help. Therefore, accusing police officers of sexual harassment is extremely serious and it’s one that can have a significant impact on the entire community, beyond just the victim and accused.
Preventing Accusations of Sexual Harassment
The best defense, of course, is avoiding such accusations in the first place. However, anyone can make an accusation of any sort at any time, leaving you open for if it can occur. Because of your status as a police officer, members of the community may seek to disempower you personally or the police force at large by making accusations.
Here are some ways to lessen your chance of sexual harassment accusations:
- Treat everyone the same way, whether a professional colleague, a member of the public or the person you’re arresting.
- Consider a plan of action in case you are accused of sexual harassment. Having a plan in place will prevent shock or delay that may accompany an accusation against you.
- Stay aware of your surroundings. Whether you’re driving through a neighborhood on the lookout, completing paperwork at your desk, or having dinner with a friend outside of police work, know that you may recognized for your work and anticipate that others could be listening.
Defenses Against Sexual Harassment
If you are being formally accused of sexual harassment, you will go through a long, confusing legal process that may involve court hearings, settlements, or both. It can be tough to defend against sexual harassment accusations, but lawyers experienced in this field will likely explore some or all of the following defense strategies:
Opting for a claim of innocence is the most basic defense against sexual harassment. Most evidence in a sexual harassment charge, sometimes all of the evidence, is circumstantial. Circumstantial evidence is a type of “evidence” that insinuates a connection with a crime but does not directly or explicitly align with the accusation. For instance, in a shoplifting accusation, the accused’s fingerprint may show up at the crime scene. This could infer that the accused party was part of the crime, when really the fingerprint only indicates that the accused party has been to that place at some point somewhat recently – such as a normal, paying customer at the shop. Likewise, you may be accused using circumstantial evidence, which a skilled sexual harassment attorney will be able to defend against.
This is another approach to claim your innocence: your lawyer may opt for a defense of showing that the victim had some ulterior motive for claiming sexual harassment against you. It may be personal in nature – that you as a police officer or private citizen did something to upset the other person – or it may be aimed at you as a symbol or representative of the wider police force, whom the victim feels has done wrong by him or her.
Depending on the age of the alleged victim, your defense lawyer may be able to use a defense of consent, arguing that the person did indeed consent to the behavior you are accused of. This is a much stronger argument if the alleged victim is of the age of consent. California state law defines age of consent 18, meaning that anyone over that age can engage in sexual intercourse legally with any other person over that age. If both parties in your sexual harassment case are at or above the age of 18 at the time of the events, your lawyer may be able to create doubt that your alleged victim didn’t allow, or consent, to the actions and behaviors occurring.
Insanity (Mental Incapacity)
Though this seems like a common defense in many cases thanks to TV shows, it actually is rarely used in courts of law. California state law defines legal insanity as either of the following: that you did not understand the criminal nature of your act, or that you did not understand that your actions were wrong from a moral perspective. You may be able to argue that you were either permanently or temporarily insane or mentally incapable of understanding your actions at the time of the event.
Importantly, the burden of proof in this situation changes: while the onus of proof is normally the responsibility of the prosecutor (the lawyer of the accusing party), in a case using insanity as a defense, the defendant (the lawyer of the accused party) bears the burden of proof. This can make it more difficult to prove.
A defense of insanity or mental incapacity can be notoriously difficult to secure, as your lawyer must prove that it’s more likely that you were insane, at least temporarily, at the time of your crime. Proving this often involves a large number of anecdotes that indicate you may not understand what you were doing – which can especially hard to prove for police officers, who are praised professionally for their logic, patience, and ability to see more than one side of a situation.
Resources for Defending Against Sexual Harassment
If you are accused of sexual harassment, all is not lost. In fact, there are several avenues you can pursue that can aid in your defense. Even if you have not been accused of sexual harassment, being aware of these options can better situate you if the circumstance occurs:
- Speak with your police chief. If legal action is eminent, your police chief will need to understand all the parties involved so he/she can be prepared for public statements and involvement from media, like local news channels and newspapers. Your police chief can also inform you of any decisions the police department may need to make in light of the accusations, as legal action may also go after the police department, too.
- Retain a lawyer. As a police officer, you may pursue an attorney who is already affiliated with representing your precinct or force or you may seek a lawyer who is separate from that but who specializes in sexual harassment cases. Share your full story in complete honesty, which will allow your lawyer to provide the develop the best defense for your specific case.
- Consult with your union. Many police forces are protected by labor organizations or labor unions. These groups help you and your police department navigate potential legal action, as it will become public knowledge.
- Seek advice from the NPDF. The National Police Defense Foundation is a national non-profit group that provides free legal support services, among other benefits, to members of the law enforcement community. Their Legal Defense Program helps police officers and other law enforcement officials fight unjust prosecution or false accusations and convictions. The NPDF can provide examples from across the U.S. that can guide or inform your defense strategy.
- Keep a record of interactions and conversations. Take notes after any conversation that relates to charges of sexual harassment. These can be in person, on the phone, texts, emails, or through other social media. Notes need not be formal. Instead, they should recount what happened: who was present, who said what, whether anything was threatened or insinuated. Keep your record in a place where only you can access it – not on a work computer or work phone, but instead on a personal phone or on papers locked in a safe at your own home. Be prepared to share these notes with your lawyer and perhaps with your police department, as necessary or required.
- Develop a media strategy. Because of your status as a law enforcement officer, media outlets like local news stations and newspapers will be involved, sending reporters to various press conferences. Along with your police department, labor union, and lawyer, you’ll need to reach consensus on a strategy for dealing with the media – whether you’ll talk, how much information you’ll share, etc.
Even false accusations of sexual harassment have severe and long-lasting impact on all involved: the accused, the accuser, law enforcement communities, and the public at large. If you are a police officer accused of sexual harassment in California, call Sexual Harassment Attorney today at 800-905-1856. Our expert team of lawyers and legal professionals are ready to defend your case.