The Park Police tweaked the policy after Renee Abt sued to say that women could notify their bosses in their first trimester of pregnancy. But the department had to throw that one out too.
Longstanding Park Police policy on officer pregnancies
On the basis of the earlier policy, Abt, a plainclothes detective in the Park Police’s criminal investigations branch, told her supervisor she was pregnant in 2008 and within two hours was placed on limited duty doing administrative work. Her home-to-work police vehicle was also taken away.
Within a few weeks, she was transferred to the human resources department to review applications for new cadets. But she had little work to do, she said. “I basically sat there idle in a cubicle.” After she complained, she was sent to answer phones in another office until she gave birth and went on maternity leave, a job “that was not what taxpayers were paying my [$92,000] salary for me to do.”
Abt was a decorated detective who loved her job and excelled at it, earning a string of exemplary performance reviews. She discovered the department’s pregnancy policy by accident when she was five months’ pregnant and studying for the test for promotion to sergeant. She told her squad leader about her pregnancy and said she intended to continue investigating crimes. Most of the job entailed inside work at the office, with only occasional duties in the field, Abt said. But she wanted to continue the field work too.
Her boss congratulated her and approved her request to stay on the job. But when he told the department’s senior managers she was pregnant, the trouble started. “The only thing they would tell me is they had a more pressing need for me in personnel,” Abt said.
After giving birth and taking maternity leave, she returned to her detective’s job. But when she retired in 2013, she sued the Interior Department, the Park Police’s parent agency, alleging gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. She said the department violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires that employers treat women who are pregnant the same as other applicants or employees who have similar abilities or limitations.
“First my privacy was invaded when there was no need,” Abt said from her home in Northern Virginia. “I was treated worse than officers who are charged with wrongdoing. I was being penalized just because I was pregnant.”
On Tuesday, the Park Police agreed to settle the case, awarding Abt $300,000 for her pain and suffering, the maximum allowed under federal law. The department also agreed to rescind its previous pregnancy policies and comply instead with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. “It will by policy and practice treat women affected by pregnancy the same for all employment-related purpose… as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work,” the settlement order said.
“They did not respect her choice here, which was to stay on the job,” said Mary Hallerman, one of four attorneys with the firm McDermott, Will & Emery who took Abt’s case pro bono. “They made the decision for her,” Hallerman said, calling the pregnancy policy “very antiquated.”
Park Police pregnancy policy revised in 2014
Sgt. Lelani Woods, a Park Police spokeswoman, said Thursday she could not comment or provide details in the case.
Women make up 5 to 8 percent of the 620 Park Police officers, a smaller percentage of women in state and local departments nationwide, which is about 12 percent, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
In the District, pregnant officers are not required to notify the department when they are pregnant. They continue in full duty assignments until they request a change to limited duty or their pregnancy interferes with their job.
“The decision to continue work on full duty status is the sole decision of the pregnant member in consultation with her private physician,” say D.C. Police policy, which dates to 2001.
Policies for pregnant officers in other departments are still evolving, with formal ones in some departments and nothing written in many smaller ones, experts say.
“At some point, maybe the officer and her doctor are going to decide, you need to come indoors,” said Catherine Sanz, a retired special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement who is president of Women in Federal Law Enforcement, a group that advocates for gender equity for female officers.
“Or maybe you don’t kick down the doors when we do a raid but you’ll do a search,” Sanz said. “But you can’t take a police officer and have her answering the phone like a secretary just because she’s pregnant.”