Amy Ford has wanted to be a police officer since fifth grade, when a Bettendorf cop visited her classroom. After she became one, she almost kept quiet about the sexism she said she experienced in the Anamosa Police Department because she thought complaining would end her career.
But Ford, a 38-year-old wife and mother, decided she needed to come forward for herself, for other female employees and for her daughter, now 9.
“I’m showing Aubrey what it’s like to stand up for herself,” Ford said.
Ford won a $750,000 settlement from the city of Anamosa and its insurer last month, avoiding a trial at the height of the #MeToo movement.
Ford said the size of the award, of which she received nearly $430,000 after legal costs, validates concerns she raised about sexist emails, bias in department purchases and retaliation by police after she complained about discrimination.
Ford had been an Anamosa police officer for three years before Bob Simonson was hired as chief in May 2010. He had come from the Maquoketa Police Department, where he’d served for 22 years, the Quad-City Times reported.
At the time, Ford was the only woman on the eight-officer force and she immediately felt Simonson did not respect her or women in law enforcement. Ford complained to her supervisor in June 2010, according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 29, 2015. But the sergeant told her that he needed his job and that his hands were tied.
Simonson, still listed as police chief on the department’s website, did not return phone calls The Gazette made both Wednesday and Thursday. In its settlement with Ford, the city did not accept liability for the claims she made.
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Simonson had a proclivity for forwarding bawdy jokes, photos of naked women and other emails with sexist messages, Ford said. Her attorney, Katie Ervin Carlson with Fiedler & Timmer in Johnston, shared with The Gazette 10 emails they received as part of discovery in the lawsuit.
One email Simonson forwarded June 10, 2015, from his Yahoo account to more than 30 recipients, including Ford and other police officers, had the subject line “Do you remember the Hula-Hoop?”. It showed the back of a naked woman with a Hula-Hoop and the caption “Mezmerizing [sic] isn’t it?”
Another email, which Simonson forwarded on Christmas Day 2016 to Anamosa police officers, excluding Ford, showed a photo of two houses. Christmas lights on one house spelled out a vulgar word for a woman with an arrow pointing to the next house. Simonson added a message that said, “Sheeeeeeessshhh! And her attorney is accusing me of saying it once!!!!!!!”
Ervin Carlson said she did not know whether Simonson’s message on this email — forwarded nearly a year after Ford’s lawsuit had been filed — was referring to Ford.
But Ford’s attorneys previously had asked Simonson about another email he shared with friends and co-workers on July 27, 2015, showing a photo of a bar named with the same vulgar word for a woman. “Who Knew?” a message added. “Hillary has a campaign office in Ireland.”
Another of Simonson’s forwarded emails included a racist joke about Chinese newlyweds.
The emails showed how the chief viewed women, Ford said.
“The jokes he sent, the pictures and videos were all women-based and all discriminatory,” she said. “It’s not like he was sending pictures of women finding cures for cancer.”
And she wasn’t the only one who felt the messages were wrong.
“There were other officers, male officers, that were just as flabbergasted that the chief would be sending this out from city computers to city employees,” Ford said. “At one point, I spoke with the sergeant at the time. He said ‘Yeah, there have been people fired for less than this.’”
Spending bias alleged
Ford kept her head down and did her job — a job she still loved despite the tension with Simonson. She worried that if she went over the chief’s head, she’d be fired and never get another law enforcement job.
But then something happened that pushed her over the edge.
Ford’s police-issue ballistics vest expired in 2010 and she asked Simonson for permission to get a new one.
Of 637 law enforcement officers nationwide shot in the torso from 2002 to 2011, officers who wore body armor were 76 percent less likely to be killed than those who didn’t, according to an analysis of the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database done for a 2016 article published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.
Simonson told Ford the money wasn’t in the budget, but then later purchased new gun lights and holsters for officers, the lawsuit states. Even when she found a grant that would pay for a new vest, Simonson would not turn in the paperwork, Ford said.
“That really catapulted this whole thing,” Ford said. “Whatever his issue with women in policing or me personally, he has to get over that because I deserve the same opportunities to do my job as my male counterparts.”
Ford made a written complaint to then-City Administrator Alan Johnson on July 21, 2015, alleging gender discrimination because of the vest and other issues.
Johnson made sure Ford got a vest, but he wrote off her other complaints as “nitpicking and backbiting,” according to the lawsuit.
One month after Ford complained to Johnson, she received her first-ever write up by Simonson, and the chief passed over her for a promotion.
When Ford started talking with lawyers, who wrote city officials asking them to preserve documents in case there was a lawsuit, her fellow officers “unfriended” her on Facebook, did not return work-related texts and talked with her little, she said.
“It created a huge divide between officers that were my friends,” Ford said.
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In January 2017, Ford left the Anamosa Police Department. She was grateful to get a job in Lisbon, a city of 2,200 with only three police officers. “Luckily, the department that hired me asked questions and came to their own conclusion rather than just taking what they had heard through the rumor mill,” Ford said.
Ford’s lawsuit was set to go to trial Dec. 5, 2017, the same week Minnesota Sen. Al Franken announced he would resign over sexual harassment allegations, celebrity chef Mario Batali was accused of harassment by four women and Time magazine named the female “Silence Breakers” its collective 2017 Person of the Year.
“Once the #MeToo movement really got its momentum and we entered this time of reckoning, employers like the city or other employer can’t have that sort of dismissive attitude anymore,” said Ervin Carlson, the attorney. “The time is no more that you can convince jurors that these cases didn’t happen.”
Iowa has had several other high-dollar sex discrimination settlements.
The West Des Moines Police Department paid more than $2 million in 2016 to settle lawsuits by three former female employees who said Shaun LaDue, then chief, passed them over for promotions, took away key job responsibilities and retaliated against the women when they complained, according to the Des Moines Register.
LaDue was forced to resign.
Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum, former University of Iowa athletics employees, won a $6.5 million settlement from the UI in May 2017 for gender and sexual orientation discrimination claims.
A state panel last fall agreed to pay Kirsten Anderson, a former Iowa Senate Republican communications director, $1.75 million to settle charges of sexual harassment.
Anamosa City Attorney Adrian Knuth provided The Gazette with a copy of the Ford settlement, which requires the city to pay $50,000 and EMC Insurance $700,000.
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“I’m not aware of any repercussions for Chief Simonson to date,” Knuth said. He said the Anamosa City Council hasn’t had an official meeting since Ford signed the settlement Jan. 18. The next council meeting is Feb. 12 or 13, he said.
Knuth said he doesn’t think the city has a policy on employee use of technology or social media. He does not know whether the emails Simonson forwarded from a personal email to city employees on their work email accounts would violate any other city policies.
Ford, who dismissed her lawsuit last week, said it’s disheartening Simonson still has his job. But “this lawsuit an this award and the fact I’m still working in law enforcement should show some support to somebody else that you can speak up.”
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