Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Five years after #MeToo, sexism persists in local law enforcement

Second in a two-part series. Click here to read part one.

For some women working under San Diego Sheriff’s Sgt. Kotaro Murashige, a day at the office meant facing sexist, condescending and disparaging comments, according to a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Internal Affairs report.

Female deputies reported that when they called Murashige to ask for help, he’d hang up on them. When they asked for additional job training, he mocked them, ignored them, or told them to leave the department, according to the report.

Advertisement

Murashige’s behavior eventually caught up with him and the department launched an investigation. He ended up resigning in August 2019 before being fired—with a $6,494 monthly pension. His attorney didn't respond to requests for comment.

The Sheriff’s Department released records of its investigation into Murashige 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.

These records are examples of how five years after #MeToo, many female police officers still experience sexism on the job as they struggle to fit into a male-dominated culture, said Ellen Kirschman, a psychologist who treats police officers.

Kirschman said female officers bring a lot of value to departments — they are great undercover, work well with the community, and are more likely to de-escalate situations — and can be more physically fit than male officers.

“They make really, really, really good officers,” she said. “Some of the sharpest, smartest, most dedicated, and competent people I know in law enforcement are female.”

Advertisement

But, Kirschman said, female officers often find themselves caught in a Catch 22 —sexism keeps them from being promoted, and because there are few women in leadership roles, the sexism is allowed to continue.

“If you have the right women that have been promoted, they will keep their eye out for when these things happen, and they will mentor the younger or the newer women on the job,” she said.

A San Diego County Sheriff's cruiser in this undated photo.
Claire Trageser
A San Diego County Sheriff's cruiser in this undated photo.

Strict policies

If departments are serious about preventing sexism and sexual harassment, they need to develop strict policies and and actually enforce them, Kirschman said.

“The people in charge can show decent behavior as opposed to being part of the problem, which sometimes happens,” she said.

Kirschman said stations or divisions that are physically separated from the main headquarters will sometimes “split off from the main organization and go rogue in many ways because they don't have the kind of supervision that they should have or they need.”

That could be what happened in the Sheriff’s Department's Poway station, where Sgt. Shawn Silva subjected female detectives to sexual harassment, according to a Sheriff’s Department Internal Affairs report. The detectives are suing the department and Silva, who resigned before his investigation was completed.

Jenna Rangel, the attorney for the detectives, said the department failed to take action quickly or strongly enough.

“You discipline, you terminate, you impose consequences,” Rangel said. “The same things that the Sheriff's Department does to citizens out on the street, you just need to do it internally as well.”

More training

Most law enforcement agencies do take sexual harassment seriously and have lengthy trainings to prevent it, said Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod. She leads The Counseling Team International, which provides counseling services to agencies including the Sheriff's Department, Oceanside and National City police.

“Departments are doing everything to stop sexual harassment and discrimination in their departments,” Bohl-Penrod said. “The training is excellent, and repeating the training is the key, because if you repeat the training, it gets more ingrained in your behavior.”

Citing the pending litigation over Silva, no one from the San Diego Sheriff's Department would agree to an interview for this story, but department 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.”

The state requires all employees of law enforcement agencies to get one hour of sexual harassment training every two years and supervisors to get an additional hour. Baggs said the Sheriff’s Department meets those minimums and also provides additional in person sexual harassment trainings when requested.

Silva last took sexual harassment training in 2021, and the two courses took him one hour and 39 minutes total to complete, according to a public records request.

The trainings aren’t nearly enough, said Debbie Stiesmeyer, one of the detectives suing the department. She described them as “cartoon trainings on a computer” and said they need to include a “humanizing” experience. She suggested a person who experienced sexual harassment come speak to a unit to give a personal perspective.

PXL_20220314_143944321.jpg
Alexander Nguyen
/
KPBS
Image of a San Diego police cruiser taken on March 14, 2022

More counseling

Others say that the stresses of the job impact officers' behavior, and police departments need to help employees manage stress so they can be more empathetic and understanding.

Law enforcement is traumatic work, and it can lead to a callous attitude, said Dan Willis, a retired captain from the La Mesa Police Department and author of “Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart.”

“One of the effects trauma has on our brain is it alters our ability to respond to things,” Willis said. “I think it tends to alter our ability to be caring, to be compassionate. If an officer is shut down and not really caring, not really tuned in, then they're going to be much more likely to just do things without thinking about the consequences.”

Willis said programs like peer-to-peer counseling in police departments and providing more counseling to officers can make a difference in building empathy.

But, he added, the empathy must come with zero tolerance toward officers mistreating others.

“A consistent message from the chief or sheriff on down that this is unacceptable, it's unprofessional, it's not tolerated," Willis said. "Consistently treating allegations seriously and investigating them thoroughly like you would any other potential crime or violation of department policy."

Legislative change

Some changes have already happened. For example, SB 16 requires departments to know the full history of complaints about officers before they hire them, said State Sen. Nancy Skinner, who wrote the law.

“So if I'm a police department and I'm hiring an officer from another agency in California, I know the history of any complaints made against them, what the level of the investigations are,” Skinner said.

But Stiesmeyer, the detective suing the Sheriff’s Department, said lawmakers need to go further. She wants legislative change that would prevent people found to have committed sexual harassment from retiring with a full pension.

Silva, the sergeant Stiesmeyer said harassed her and others, gets a pension of more than $5,600 a month.

“There has to be a consequence to stop people from doing this, so if you know that if you are sexually harassing somebody and those allegations are sustained, that you don't get your pension, that might make people stop doing what they're doing,” Stiesmeyer said. “There's nothing deterring them from doing this behavior.”

Newly elected San Diego Sheriff Kelly Martinez said in the case of Silva, the investigation was handled correctly.

“Another supervisor witnessed something that was concerning to him and he brought it forward, the department reacted immediately, and conducted the investigation into that incident,” Martinez said. “And we do that every time. I don't tolerate that kind of behavior.”

Martinez wouldn’t say whether she would support legislation like what Stiesmeyer is proposing.

“I'd have to see how it was written and ensure that it protected employees, but at the same time also protected the workplace and ensured that behavior was not being tolerated in the workplace,” she said.

As a member of the investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.
What is a story that is going on in San Diego that people should know about?

Explore all national, state and local returns now.