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APD harassment case finally seeing the light of day

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It will be old home week for the Albuquerque Police Department, with the likes of former Chief Ray Schultz, former Deputy Chiefs Beth Paiz and Paul Feist and others on the list of witnesses expected to be called next week in a scurrilous federal case involving allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.

Talk about a rough reunion.

It’s taken six years, several attorneys, a change of judges and the whittling down of charges and defendants for the case filed by Terysa Welch to get to trial, which is expected to begin Monday in Albuquerque before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales.

Yet in the contemporaneous context of the #MeToo movement that continues to emerge in the stories of brave, fed-up women across the country, Welch’s case seems right on time.

Her lawsuit claims Albuquerque violated the federal Civil Rights Act and the state Human Rights Act by subjecting her to many attempts by her supervisors and co-workers in the elite Repeat Offender Project to discriminate, harass and jeopardize her safety and reputation because of her sex.

And, the lawsuit alleges, when Welch complained about her hostile and vengeful work environment, she was retaliated against.

In the volumes of documents included in her lawsuit, what emerges is the story of a strong and capable woman whose dream to work in law enforcement was not always appreciated by her male counterparts.

She was a tomboy raised on elk meat and endurance in Montana, a champ at any sport she tried, a good shot with a rifle. She was fearless, mauled by a dog while in first grade yet always the first among her male colleagues to enter dangerous spots where dogs snapped and growled.

In 1998, she graduated near the top of her class at the APD Law Enforcement Academy and became a cop. Soon after becoming a police officer, she set her sights on joining the ROP unit, then an elite group of officers who often worked undercover and tracked the worst of the worst criminals – and at that time a unit without women.

To Welch, it was a challenge she readily accepted.

But in 2002 when she made it into ROP, Welch said, she was called a “skirt,” a sex object, someone not wanted because she was a woman.

“We just don’t want a chick in here, you know, we don’t want a girl,” one detective said in a deposition concerning comments made by some ROP detectives about Welch. “And then when she actually came in, I think it was like, the day that she came in, we had a meeting and you know, one of the guys stepped up and said, ‘You know what, I might be wrong for saying, this is a good old boy’s place and they ain’t no chicks that should be in ROP.'”

One of her supervisors engaged in unwanted touching, painful hugging, comments about his genitals and inappropriate and demeaning sexual comments such as writing on her evaluation that he wanted to have children with her, the lawsuit says. Another suggested that Welch engage in group sex with him and his wife.

Welch alleges that she and her male partner were set up by being told to show up in one location only to learn they were supposed to meet elsewhere with the rest of the ROP team. She was penalized for her tardiness, but her male partner was not.

Welch, the lawsuit alleges, was ordered to show up for mandatory team workouts only to find no one there.

In one instance, she was cornered in an office by two armed ROP detectives who made her fear for her life, the lawsuit alleges. In another, Welch had cornered a presumably heavily armed repeat offender and called for backup, but none arrived from her ROP team.

The lawsuit also accuses her superiors of sending her alone on dangerous assignments, while her male counterparts were allowed to double up on less risky callouts.

The city has rebutted all of Welch’s claims, saying that it acted promptly every time it learned of Welch’s complaints and that any conditions placed on her employment, if any, were the result of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, not her sex.

In 2010, Welch was temporarily transferred from ROP to the burglary unit while her complaints were handled. She never returned.

According to her lawsuit, her cubicle at ROP was cleaned out, her belongings tossed into boxes along with garbage, a photo of her made to look as if she were waving goodbye and a shoelace tied up in a hangman’s noose.

And still she persisted. In 2013, she was promoted to sergeant. She is now a lieutenant in APD’s aviation division at the Albuquerque International Sunport.

The ROP unit, which lost most of its elite status after becoming involved in a number of controversial police shootings, was disbanded in 2014 as part of the city’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

All the APD personnel named in the lawsuit, including Schultz, are no longer on the force.

Next week’s reunion is a necessary one in the name of justice, but it’s not likely to be a comfortable one.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.

 

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