Law enforcement agencies share similarities with other employers and the issues they face in the workplace. Sexual harassment is one of those issues.

Based on my 28-year career in law enforcement as well as my role today in advising and counseling public leaders in the U.S. and worldwide on a wide range of compliance issues, my experience is that the gap between what happens and what is reported is significant. My perspective is also supported by research.  According to an Edison Research survey, “only 25 percent of women who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace strongly agree they could report an incident to their employers without fear.”

Women Are Under-Represented in Law Enforcement

Within law enforcement organizations, unlike other public and private entities, female police officers represent a distinct minority — less than 20 percent nationally and far lower at the local level. Most agencies have more female civilian staff than female officers. Furthermore, there is a noticeable absence in the number of female supervisors in most law enforcement agencies, as can be seen in the following data from Politico.


As in any workplace environment, gender imbalance creates unique challenges, particularly in terms of both conducting neutral investigations into complaints and also ensuring a harassment-free workplace. Law enforcement has further challenges in this regard given the close proximity of officers working together for long hours; the relative independence of officers; and limited supervision of officers while working in the field and in conducting their investigations.

How Law Enforcement Leaders Can Leverage Policy to Address Sexual Harassment

Law enforcement executives can take many actions to help establish a safe and welcoming environment for all employees.

While some of these recommendations reflect common sense, one key requirement to effective policies and practices that reduce workplace harassment is strong, consistent leadership. Establishing a culture that does not tolerate sexual harassment, enforcing discipline against those who persist in such behaviors and more importantly, providing training and policies that encourage reporting and supervisory intervention are key antidotes to the toxic impact of sexual harassment in any workplace, including law enforcement.

A good policy is the foundation that helps ensure appropriate workplace behaviors. Clearly defined standards, reporting requirements and associated discipline and outcomes are the baseline requirements for an effective policy. Policies need to clearly define:

  • That sexual harassment is not acceptable
  • Expectations for appropriate behaviors by employees
  • Inappropriate and illegal actions
  • The mandated actions of officers and supervisors when confronted with observations or allegations of sexual harassment
  • The potential consequences for those engaging in sexual harassment

An Effective Policy Should Also Address Six Areas

  1. Mandatory Reporting. Invariably, when an investigation ensues or a lawsuit is filed, people are identified as having varying degrees of awareness and culpability regarding the incident. Most reports are not one-time events, but rather the outcomes of cumulative events with a coercive and corrosive impact on the organization.Effective policies do not place the burden solely on the victim – they are a shared responsibility for all officers. At minimum, supervisors who receive complaints of such behaviors – even if these are “informal” – should be required to report sexual harassment. If a supervisor is advised of a concern, they should report it formally. If an officer observes specific conduct that is sexually harassing, they should report it.This is key in an environment where women are significantly outnumbered and where, sometimes, the desire to fit in and not make waves overrides personal security. Such policies also limit organizational risk, ensuring that those who witness such behaviors have responsibility for stopping them by reporting them. This reflects favorably upon an organization’s ability to act and protect an employee.
  2. Annual Refresher Training. It should be a given that all members of a law enforcement organization have been trained on sexual harassment policies and protocols. However, this type of training should not be a “one and done.” Adult learning focused on real-life situations help drives home effective policy, practice and action. Ensuring ongoing familiarization with policies and appropriate responses to sexual harassment complaints helps maintain a healthy culture and prevents actions from becoming significant issues for the employee and department.
  3. Fraternization. Every department needs clearly established standards on fraternization. Such rules are not without challenge as many married couples work for the same department and many officers find it easier to date other officers.At a minimum, your policies should address supervisory fraternization with line officers and whether married and domestic partners can work the same shift. Supervisors should never supervise partners or employees they are involved with romantically or through a family relationship. The authority of supervision within a hierarchal organization cannot be underestimated and fraternization of supervisors and officers often creates long-term challenges for officers who work the shift and the agency.The power and potential for coercion by a supervisor regarding a subordinate is repeatedly an issue in law enforcement sexual harassment cases. Such relationships often provide a foundation for claims of disparate treatment and favoritism by officers who work the shift as well. Finally, such practices seek to minimize the risk of an organization being vicariously liable for sexual harassment by supervisors.
  4. Neutral Party Reporting. A victim of sexual harassment should be able to report their complaint to someone outside their direct line of supervision. This limits the organizational liability in the event the accused harasser is a supervisor and also allows a victim to be able to select a safe environment for reporting. Most agencies now incorporate a municipal or county-level Human Resources Office outside the department or have a designated Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) reporting officer. Larger agencies have designated EEO offices that take such complaints. For rural or other resource-constrained entities, establishing a mutual aid system or contracting with local service agencies are options to ensure neutral reporting.
  5. Independent Investigation. Neutrality in harassment investigations is key for the employee and the agency. Such claims are potentially divisive to an organization as they raise a variety of issues and often involve other officers as witnesses or the accused. Therefore, it is far better to remove the claim from the direct line of supervision, particularly if a supervisor is identified as the perpetrator. Allowing independent investigation also demonstrates the commitment to a fact-based investigation that is fair to all.
  6. Management Labor Working Groups. Issues like sexual harassment often do not happen in a vacuum and may be the outcome of other cultural factors within an organization. The ability to work with police employee groups around workplace issues of concern, routine engagement with the chief and command staff and the ability to work on special status projects that affect, for this blog’s purpose, gender and sexual inequality in the workplace, provide the opportunity for mutual understanding and open discussions regarding concerns and interests.

I have spent my life working with and in law enforcement. The ability to provide for a professional and open work environment for all is the outcome of a strong, leadership-driven approach to sexual harassment that is solidified in policy.

Understanding the risk of sexual harassment in your agency might require an outside perspective.
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