Debbie Stiesmeyer had spent eight years on a successful career path at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department when in April 2021 she transferred to the Poway station as a detective.
Stiesmeyer was just two weeks into the job when Sgt. Shawn Silva, her new supervisor, stopped by her cubicle, according to court documents and a Sheriff’s Department internal affairs report. Silva surveyed the cubicle’s walls, which were decorated with pictures of Stiesmeyer’s family and female friends.
“He sat down, he looked around, and he said, ‘where is the picture of your boyfriend?’” she said in an interview with KPBS. “I was very taken aback by that comment and I just quickly said, ‘I don't have a boyfriend.’ And then he said, ‘well, if you don't have a boyfriend, you must be a lesbian.’”
That jarring conversation marked the beginning of a hellish three-month period for Stiesmeyer, according to her interview with KPBS. Coming to work under Silva’s supervision meant constant comments about her body, her relationship status, her sexuality, according to the documents and interview.
There was the time she and another female detective left the station together and Silva shouted loudly, “What are you two doing? Going bra shopping?” Or when Stiesmeyer wore new pants and Silva said, “Are those new? I can tell by the creases on them.” Or when he spread rumors about her that she was a lesbian and was sleeping with a married commander. Or when he asked her for a photo to send to his friend in the FBI, or announced during a staff meeting that Stiesmeyer was single and needed help finding a boyfriend.
Stiesmeyer later realized she was just one of Silva’s targets. His behavior included “sexual harassment, discrimination, targeting, inappropriate racial remarks” and “discourteous comments,” according to the internal affairs report, which included interviews with 24 people — most of them Silva’s employees — who either experienced or witnessed the behavior.
The Sheriff’s Department released the internal affairs report on Silva under a state law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021. The law, SB 16, requires law enforcement agencies to release all past records of sustained findings of discrimination by Jan. 1, 2023, plus current and future records as they become available.
Silva retired from the department in March before the internal affairs investigation was completed and was allowed to keep his full monthly pension of $5,628.77. His attorney didn't respond to requests for comment.
Stiesmeyer and another detective, Stacey Ralph, are now suing Silva and the Sheriff’s Department for sexual harassment. They allege that the sexism and sexual harassment they experienced under Silva are part of a larger pattern and that the department doesn't do enough to address the problem.
“The pattern and practice is clear – a male officer stands accused of egregious sexual harassment, an investigation shrouded in secrecy ensues, victims are kept in the dark while the harasser remains on duty,” reads the complaint filed in August in San Diego Superior Court.
“The allegations are corroborated by numerous witnesses, and then, prior to making investigatory conclusions that would subject the harasser to discipline or termination, the Department allows the harasser to retire without consequence, thereafter collecting thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars in a taxpayer-funded pension,” the complaint said.
A response filed by San Diego County to the lawsuit states Silva denies all allegations against him and that he “acted in good faith and with a reasonable belief that his conduct was lawful.”
The Sheriff’s Department is hardly unique among law enforcement agencies for allowing sexism and toxic masculinity to flourish, said Ellen Kirschman, a clinical psychologist who treats first responders including police.
“The culture itself is really dominated by masculine values, or macho values that say that we are different from other people,” Kirschman said.
Another byproduct of the culture is a dearth of advancement opportunities for women, who make up just 10% of the supervisorial ranks in law enforcement agencies, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ralph left the Poway station right before Stiesmeyer arrived in 2021, and had suffered for years under Silva, she said in both her lawsuit and in interviews.
There was the day she and her colleagues were out to lunch and talking about another police officer whose body worn camera, or BWC, picked up him sending sexual text messages.
“And Sgt. Silva looks at me in the middle of Chipotle and in a normal talking voice says, ‘Oh, Stacey, you're lucky that your husband doesn't have to wear a BWC at his unit or else your sex tape would be all over everywhere,’” Ralph said.
“I couldn't believe it. Everybody stopped talking at the table and were just staring at me. And I just looked at him and was like, ‘Really, Sarge?’ And nobody said anything. They were completely mortified because what do you say to something like that?”
Ralph said the harassment was constant for two years.
“If I would have just written down every inappropriate thing that he said, I would have never got my work done,” she said. “I would put my headphones on and pretend I was listening to something in hopes that he would just continue by my cube. You have to come up with little things like that so you just can try to get through your day.”
Still, she said she would often cry on her way home from work. Eventually, Ralph and another detective couldn’t take it anymore. They didn’t want an internal affairs investigation, but in July 2020 reported Silva to a lieutenant.
After that, Silva sent her an apology text, but, Ralph said, her decision to report just made the situation worse. Silva ramped up his harassment, and told the other detective, “I guess you’re not in the inner circle anymore,” according to the complaint.
“So then the other detective and I were like, ‘OK, well, that didn't work. Now our lives are just way worse,’” Ralph said. “So we just had to continue to live with it.”
Kirschman said it’s common for officers to not report harassment they’re experiencing.
“Very often if you report it, nothing happens, and that's even worse because then you have jeopardized yourself, put yourself out there for some retaliation and for what good did it do you? Because nothing happened,” she said.
Citing the pending litigation over Silva, no one from the San Diego Sheriff's Department would agree to an interview for this story, but a spokesperson Lt. Amber Baggs, sent a statement.
“We hold all of our employees to the highest standards and require our staff to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and compassion,” the statement said. “All of our employees are required to attend sexual harassment training and we have strict policies in place as well.”
'Sign of weakness'
Like Ralph, Stiesmeyer tried to tough it out — a common tactic among women law enforcement officers who don’t want to seem weak, Kirschman said.
“You are supposed to be untouched by tragedy, never need any help because if you need help it is a sign of weakness,” Kirschman said. “And nobody wants to look weak, especially in front of their colleagues.”
Stiesmeyer finally reported Silva to a sergeant in July, 2021. But just like Ralph, she ended up in a worse situation.
Two days after her report, Silva was removed from the Poway station, but wasn’t put on leave. Instead, he was transferred to another location very near to Stiesmeyer’s house.
Meanwhile, Stiesmeyer’s situation in the Poway station didn’t get any better. Silva was gone, but his friends retaliated against her, making veiled threats about finding out who had reported Silva and assigning Stiesmeyer cases while she was on vacation, according to her legal complaint. Finally, she reached out to lawyers to sue the department and Silva for sexual harassment. She quit her job, and with their help, she and Ralph filed the lawsuit.
Now, she works as a server in the Gaslamp District while waiting on the results of her lawsuit. Stiesmeyer said her experience shows why more people in law enforcement don’t report sexual harassment.
“I walked away from essentially a $130,000 a year career, and I wasn't vested, so I don't get a pension, I had nothing lined up,” she said. “That's how bad and desperate I was to get out of there. It's hard to report because there is a stigma that you're the snitch and then you're essentially blacklisted for the rest of your career.”
Part two in this series will explore that issue and possible solutions.
Just one in 10 law enforcement supervisors are women, and trying to climb the ranks as a woman means sometimes having to battle sexism, toxic masculinity and even sexual harassment.
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