Jury finds N.Y. policy regarding pregnant officers is unfair
By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Staff writer
The Suffolk police department's policy of not giving limited duties to officers who can't patrol because of non-work-related injuries is unfair to pregnant cops, a jury decided yesterday in federal court.
While the panel of four men and four women found that the county enacted the policy in 2000 for business reasons, the jury also decided the department should have used less discriminatory alternatives.
"It's a victory for women in police nationally and women in traditionally male fields," said one of the attorneys for the six plaintiffs, Namita Luthra of the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project.
Jurors listened to six days of testimony from plaintiffs, who described the added danger of patrolling while pregnant, and department officials, who insisted the policy was meant to take officers out of offices and put them back on the streets. They took about 16 hours over three days to come to a verdict.
"We all feel wonderful and elated that this day has finally come," said Officer Sandra Lochren, 37, of Southold. "However, it is also mixed with bittersweet emotions because it's sad we had to fight for so long."
Assistant County Attorney Chris Termini called the verdict "terribly inconsistent."
Lochren and the other officers said they felt vindicated and that the jury understood the unique situation of a pregnant officer in life-threatening situations.
Retired Officer Kelly Mennella, 34, of Smithtown, said she felt part of a historical event, one that will pave the way for younger generations of female police.
"We all have daughters," she said. "This is for them."
Outside the courtroom, the tearful plaintiffs hugged their lawyers and were congratulated by the jurors. Some jurors told them they believed the policy should have never been applied to pregnancy.
One juror said he sympathized with retired Officer Sarah MacDermott, who testified that she was forced to patrol or go home and use sick or vacation days when she asked for a desk job because she was pregnant. The juror said he thought it was awful that the department asked her to fill out police reports on her own while she was at home.
The long wait for a verdict had seemed to be for naught when the jury foreman announced that only two of the women proved they were discriminated against. It was clear, however, that the plaintiffs as a whole were vindicated when the foreman answered yes to the question of whether the policy had a harsher impact on pregnant officers.
The jury found that MacDermott and Mennella proved they were discriminated against. MacDermott was awarded about $13,000 in actual damages and emotional and mental anguish, while Mennella was awarded about $23,000. The remaining four officers, Christine Blauvelt, Miriam Riera, Patricia O'Brien and Lochren were awarded $5,000 each for emotional and mental anguish.
But the bigger victory is that discrimination was recognized, said another of their lawyers, Linda Neilan of Manhattan. She said the next step will be to file papers asking that Magistrate Judge Arlene Lindsay order the department to change its policy.
"That's why they're gleaming right now," she said. "It's what they've fought for so long for."
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