Imagine opening an email message from your boss and discovering a video clip of a woman in a Santa hat peeling off her clothing and presenting her breasts like a gift. Now imagine that your boss is the police chief, and that the email was sent to a group that included at least one City Council member and several of your fellow law enforcement officers.
Finally, imagine the email isn’t an isolated incident, that it is one of several disturbing lewd and/or racist messages.
That’s part of the situation that led former Anamosa police officer Amy Ford to file a gender discrimination lawsuit against the city, and also part of why the lawsuit was settled for $750,000 earlier this year.
Beginning in May 2010, when the city brought in Bob Simonson to serve as police chief, Ford says she was disrespected as the sole female officer in the department. And although the lawsuit was settled and Ford is working with another Eastern Iowa law enforcement agency, she’s speaking out now — most recently with KCRG-TV9 investigative reporter Josh Scheinblum — because she thinks Anamosa city leaders are trying to sweep the chief’s inappropriate behavior under the rug. Comments made at a recent City Council meeting back up her assertions.
“It was a conducive environment for the plaintiff’s claim,” City Attorney Adrian Knuth said, referring to ongoing national women’s initiatives regarding sexual harassment such as the #MeToo movement.
In a follow-up interview with Scheinblum, Knuth said that government simply moves slow, “much slower than most would like.”
In this case, city leaders could have lost a foot race to a snail. Ford complained about disturbing incidents of discrimination to no avail, ultimately bringing her lawsuit in December 2015. Surely, three years would have been enough time for city leaders to review the contents of email messages — especially given that a member of their own body, council member Cody Shaffer, received them directly.
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Further, many of these disturbing messages were sent after Ford had filed her lawsuit, after Simonson already should have been put on notice by city leadership that his communications had been called into question. Instead, there are email messages where Simonson appears to mock Ford’s claims, including one that contains a photo of outdoor holiday lighting arranged to spell a derogatory slur for women that begins with the letter “c,” and Simonson’s message: “Sheeesh, and her attorney is accusing me of saying it once!” Others are “jokes” that deride people of different ethnic backgrounds.
During a 2016 deposition, Simonson admitted to labeling black people as “gangbangers” and “big lipped mother” ... well, readers unfortunately know the word used to finish off that last phrase.
And let’s not forget that it wasn’t only tasteless email messages and ugly statements that brought the city to this point. Ford was “scorned,” according to court filings, for requesting time off to care for her daughter. She was told the department had no funds to replace her ballistics vest, which was ill-fitting and expired in 2010. When she took it upon herself to locate a grant that would provide funding for replacement equipment, Simonson never sent the application Ford completed.
Then-City Administrator Alan Johnson labeled these and other issues as “nitpicking and backbiting,” according to court documents. Co-workers stopped responding to her work-related messages.
It took less than three months for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to review Ford’s allegations and issue her a right-to-sue letter. Yet this was an ongoing situation that city leaders had known about for years.
Maybe this is just how it is in Anamosa. Perhaps the business community has come to terms with the fact that people of color and women aren’t welcome on Main Street. Maybe school leaders believe that, just because some members of the police department took issue with one woman, there’s no reason to fear that their female students and teachers will be disrespected or treated indifferently. Perhaps members of the City Council included in emailed “jokes” just laughed it off. Who knows, maybe they even appreciated the digital peep show. Surely none of this had any bearing on residents of color or women who brought projects or issues before city board and commissions, right?
As ugly as these scenarios are, each is more likely than this discrimination claim and subsequent settlement being a response to a national movement that hadn’t yet begun at the time the lawsuit was filed.
In a just world, city leaders already would have responded to this travesty. All city employees involved, including the police chief, would have been suspended pending further internal investigation. Leaders who wanted to understand how deeply entrenched racism and sexism has become would have turned over police stop and other city data to researchers.
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Such practical solutions have been cast aside in favor of denials and finger-pointing. This lawsuit didn’t appear as part of a national movement against sexual harassment. There is no political climate in which actions taken and statements made by Simonson can be justified.
The Anamosa police chief has behaved badly, displayed poor judgment and, at the very least, called into question his ability to provide fair treatment to women and minorities. Through his actions he has disrespected Iowans and, in doing so, no longer deserves his badge.
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, email@example.com
Update: After this column was filed for the print edition, Anamosa city leaders scheduled a special council meeting for 3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 26. The only item on that agenda is a closed session “to evaluate the professional competency of an individual who’s appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered.” Following the closed session council members may direct the city attorney to take action based on what was said and learned behind closed doors.