By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Staff Writer
Copyright 2006 Newsday, Inc.
Kelly Mennella, a former Suffolk Police officer, recalled yesterday how her pregnant stomach made it impossible to wear a bulletproof vest and how it was difficult to reach for her gun - and that the police department gave her the choice of working unsafely or not working at all.
She testified during the first day of a federal trial in which she and five other women officers are suing the county police department for discrimination.
Mennella, 34, of Smithtown, told a jury in U.S. District Court in Central Islip that, when she was seven months pregnant in 2001, she asked to be taken off patrol duty to work a desk job. But because of a policy change the previous year that didn't allow officers who suffered a non-work-related injury to request limited duty, Mennella was told she needed to continue working as a patrol officer or stay home without pay, she testified.
Mennella, who retired from the force last year because of a work-related disability, said using her sick and personal days to stay home instead of patrolling the Sixth Precinct while pregnant was difficult.
"I realized asking for this would not be good for my career," she said during questioning by one of the officers' lawyers, Carmelyn Malalis of Manhattan.
When Mennella returned in January 2002, she said she wasn't welcomed warmly by her lieutenant. "He basically approached me and said I no longer had a future in the Sixth Precinct."
The civil suit contends that the department allowed certain male officers to be assigned limited duty while injured off the job.
"The evidence is going to show the policy affected pregnant officers the most," said one of the officers' attorneys, Cassandra Stubbs of the New York Civil Liberties Union, during her opening statement. "The defendant continued to make exception after exception for male officers."
Stubbs said the policy change put the six women in danger. "A pregnant officer was expected to go out on patrol alone, but without a bulletproof vest that would help save her life," she said.
Chris Termini, representing the county, said during his opening statement that the policy was changed to make the department more efficient. He said that before 2000 the department took officers who claimed to be injured at their word and sent them to work behind a desk. Then-Commissioner John Gallagher believed officers were taking advantage of the limited-duty option.
Termini said the six women made a choice to stop working and suggested some of them took lengthy maternity leaves. "These officers didn't want to use personal time before having their child," he said. "Everybody was treated equally across the board."
Magistrate Judge Arlene Lindsay granted the county's request that the jury not see pictures of the plaintiffs with their children. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
Namita Luthra, an attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, said the suit is seeking unspecified damages.
Because of an unrelated matter, the policy was modified earlier this year because current Commissioner Richard Dormer wanted all officers to wear bulletproof vests while on duty, said Lt. Harold Armet, commander of the legal bureau. The policy now allows for 90 days of limited duty during the time an officer is unable to wear a vest, Armet said. That applies to pregnant women because there are no vests available to fit them.
Mothers in the case
Six women are suing the Suffolk County Police Department, saying it discriminated against them for being pregnant.
Christine Blauvelt, 39,
of St. James: Officer for 13 years, denied limited duty during her second pregnancy in 2001.
Sandra Lochren, 37, of Southold: Officer for 13 years, request for limited duty during 2000 pregnancy denied. She used more than 100 days of accrued leave she had saved for after the birth.
Sarah MacDermott, 39, of Port Jefferson: Officer for 16 years before retiring last year on disability, ordered to stay home during pregnancy in 2000. Her husband, also a Suffolk officer, tried to transfer his sick days to her, but was not allowed.
Kelly Mennella, 34,
of Smithtown: Became officer in 1995 and retired last year because of a disability, the result of a head-on crash while she helped pursue a suspect. Request for limited duty during her first pregnancy was denied.
Patricia O'Brien, 32, of Mount Sinai: Officer for eight years, denied limited duty for a pregnancy in 2000 and stayed home for six months. In 2002, asked for desk job without saying she was pregnant with twins and was granted the position. When she began wearing maternity uniform, she was ordered back on patrol.
Miriam Riera, 34, of Brentwood: Officer for seven years, she worked until the sixth month of her 2000 pregnancy and was denied limited duty.
Female presence on the force
Suffolk County Police Jan. 1996 Jan. 2006
Total female officers: 266 323
Total officers (approximate) 2,800 2,800
Female percentage of total officers 9.5 11.5
Female supervisors: 6 19
Highest ranking female: Lieutenant Deputy chief
N.Y. pregnant cops' trial begins