Sunday, February 23, 2003

Sex-change lawsuit

Which cops lack command presence?

There's a lawsuit being heard in federal court in Cincinnati that the Police Department would prefer got little publicity.

It's an employment discrimination and harassment case, brought by a longtime cop who, while preparing to change his gender from male to female, was demoted from sergeant to officer.

For 18 years, Phillip Barnes was considered more than competent as a police officer. His disciplinary record was spotless; his personnel file contained dozens of commendations from the public, colleagues and superiors. His evaluations showed high marks and recommendations for leadership.

In tough assignments, he could be counted on to project a strong, calming presence, ex-assistant chief Ron Twitty testified Friday.

The right stuff

Barnes had been a Marine sergeant for 10 years and served in Desert Storm. He obtained a master's degree in social work.

When Barnes took the sergeant's exam in 1998 , he scored 18th among 150 officers. The following January, he began the six-month probation typical of new sergeants in District 1.

At the time, he dressed for duty as a man but off-duty as a woman, with long hair, nails and makeup.

Three weeks into probation, his new superiors recommended that Barnes be demoted. His grammar, time management and paperwork weren't up to snuff, they said.

Give him more training, higher-ups responded - and document everything.

What followed was the toughest scrutiny any sergeant's candidate has endured, top officials admitted. Police Chief Tom Streicher said it was to help Barnes, not hurt him.

Barnes was evaluated by some 15 colleagues, his attorneys say. He wasn't allowed "into the field" by himself to supervise officers; one of his appointed "mentors" or evaluators had to tag along. He was forced to drive one of the few cruisers with video cameras and to wear a microphone, taping his words.

Each day, evaluators filled out five-page forms on Barnes' performance and demeanor; Barnes had to sign them. Weekly reports noted each mistake.

He made some, mostly involving paperwork. He was reprimanded once for writing that a fellow officer missed training because she was sick. He hadn't confirmed the information, which turned out to be false.

A woman's dress

None of his slip-ups put officers or the public in danger or embarrassed the department, his attorneys say - unless you count his arched eyebrows and long fingernails. Twice, Twitty told him to look and act more masculine.

After the demotion, Barnes underwent his sex change and legally became Philecia Ward Barnes in 2001. Now an officer in District 2, she is muscular, almost burly, and has long hair and conservative makeup.

She says that during her probation, fellow officers and even her evaluators made explicit comments about her sexuality, some too crude to repeat. In June 1999 she was demoted for "failure to perform essential job duties."

Streicher and Twitty both testified that Barnes lacked "command presence," but said the gender switch had nothing to do with that.

Even giving them the benefit of a doubt, I can't ignore what I saw in court Friday.

Streicher waffled about whether officers can legally discriminate against non-heterosexuals. He said Cincinnati's charter does not protect non-heterosexuals from discrimination, but the police department's internal policies do.

Neither man said what he meant by "command presence." And neither man demonstrated it.

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