Henn. Co. black female officer complains of racial, sexual harassment

Share story

June Johnson
Lt. June Johnson filed a complaint with the federal EEOC after she says she faced discrimination based on her race and gender working in the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.
Amanda Snyder/MPR News

When Lt. June Johnson earned a promotion to sergeant in 1998, she started moving up through the ranks of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.

But she said her supervisor told her right away that she didn't deserve the promotion and only received it because she was black.

That was soon followed, she said, by sexual harassment from another white, male sergeant who offered to help her deal with that supervisor.

"At the end of the conversation where he tells me he'll help me, as I'm walking away, he says, 'Hey June,'" she recalled. "And I turn around and say, 'what?' And he says, 'nice ass.'"

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has for decades had a work environment that is hostile to black women, say Johnson and a former officer who complain of persistent sexual harassment and discrimination.

In October, Johnson, in October filed a race and gender discrimination complaint against the office with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since then, Valerie Namen, a former sheriff's deputy, has come forward to voice similar complaints.

REPORTS MADE, NOTHING DONE

Johnson said she complained about the sexually explicit remark to another supervisor, but the office did nothing, until she and the sergeant who had harassed her were each transferred to different areas.

"So the situation was never -- or the issue -- was never really dealt with," Johnson said. "You just moved it around."

That wasn't the last time Johnson would work with that man. In 2011, he was transferred to the division where she works now, she said. Johnson said the Hennepin County human resources department investigated her claims and found them to be baseless. She found that peculiar, considering she kept detailed notes about who said what to her and provided names of witnesses.

Valerie Namen
Valerie Namen says she faced race and age discrimination at the Hennepin County Sheriff's office when she worked there in the 1990s.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

"So for them to say that there was nothing to substantiate my allegations -- that was frustrating to me," she said.

Johnson's career has spanned three sheriff's administrations. Despite her repeated complaints about unfair treatment and harassment from white male co-workers, no one has addressed the complaints, she said.

Johnson was hired in 1985, under the administration of then-Sheriff Don Omodt.

In an interview, Omodt said he never heard of any complaints made by female deputies.

His successor, Pat McGowan, who won election in 1994, could not be reached for comment.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lisa Kiava said current Sheriff Rich Stanek, who took office in 2007, would not comment on Johnson's complaint or anything related to the complaint while the EEOC investigation is underway.

NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT

The number of women serving as Hennepin County sheriff's deputies has increased slightly over the last six years, from 47 in 2008 to 55 in 2013. But women make up about 16 percent of deputies.

The number of deputies of color has also increased over the same period. However they make up about 8 percent of all deputies.

Kiava said the Sheriff's Office is proud of its efforts to increase diversity among deputies. She said the office participates in a program that pays for women and minority job candidates to obtain law enforcement education and jobs as deputies. However, Kiava said funding for the program has been lagging, and the office could improve diversity on the force with more money.

Despite the increased number of women and minorities, Johnson said other black women in the Sheriff's Office have experienced similar problems. One of them is Namen, who worked at the Sheriff's Office from 1991 to 1998.

Namen said she got along with some of her white, male co-workers, but other deputies didn't seem to want her around. She recalls once hearing a white investigator use a racial slur as she walked by him and then turning to look at him to see who he was talking about.

"The fact of the matter was he just casually threw out the 'N-word,'" she said. "And I turned around and looked at him, and he's like, 'What? Don't like it, stay the f*** out of my office.' I'm like, 'Excuse me for living.' I dropped off my paperwork and I walked out."

Namen also said she was the target of other inappropriate remarks and behavior. She said a male supervisor made a crude remark about her breasts in front of other deputies.

The same supervisor once grabbed her by the back of her pants and pulled her closer to him, she said.

Namen said her complaints to superiors were often met with condescension and that they told her she was being too sensitive and needed to get a thicker skin.

No stranger to male-dominated cultures, Namen grew up with four brothers and spent three years as a military police officer before becoming a sheriff's deputy. She has heard her fair share of sophomoric remarks.

"There's locker room talk," she said. "And then there's inappropriate talk."

PASSED OVER, 3 TIMES

Unlike Johnson, Namen chose to leave the department and did not file a formal complaint. Namen said she finally decided to leave the sheriff's office after her efforts to gain a spot in the crime lab were blocked. She said twice she earned the highest score on the entrance test and twice the office decided not to fill the open position.

On her third attempt, Namen received the second highest score. She said a white male co-worker who received the top score was given one of two open positions. However, instead of giving her the second open spot, the office decided not to fill the job.

Kiava, the Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, confirmed that Namen did work there, but would not comment further on her employment.

White, male-dominated workplaces are often the setting for gender and race-based harassment claims, said Johnson's attorney, Kathryn Engdahl. However, she said law enforcement agencies are generally no more likely than other male-dominated offices to spawn complaints. Often, police agencies work hard to change the culture.

"There are many, many forward-looking employers in those traditional fields that have overcome what would be kind of the baseline of resistance and resentment," said Engdahl, who has represented people with workplace discrimination complaints for 30 years. "And those employers have set strong messages of change."

Engdahl said she may file a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office on her client's behalf after the EEOC completes its investigation and after it attempts to get the parties to engage in mediation. If taken to trial, a jury could award Johnson compensatory damages for mental distress.

A jury could also award Johnson punitive damages, if jurors decide the sheriff's office knew about the discrimination and disregarded her concerns, Engdahl said.

Johnson said money is not behind her decision to file a complaint. She said her work environment has harmed her physical and mental health.

Still working alongside the same co-workers she named in her federal complaint, Johnson said she can't eat on the job because her stomach is constantly upset. She doesn't sleep well and gets stress headaches.

"I just want to be sure that people are going to be treated with dignity and respect," Johnson said. "If it's not me, I want that for someone else."

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the sheriff's office's human resources department investigated Johnson's claims. The Hennepin County human resources department investigated Johnson's claims.