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Officer’s sexual harassment suit against sheriff’s office goes to trial

Lake County Sheriff officer Heather Aldridge works with police dog this 2005 file photo. Aldridge Lake Bluff wlawsuit against Lake

Lake County Sheriff officer Heather Aldridge works with a police dog in this 2005 file photo. Aldridge of Lake Bluff won a lawsuit against the Lake County Sheriff's Office for gender discrimination. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: April 1, 2014 3:32AM

A 17-year veteran of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, who settled a sexual discrimination suit against the sheriff’s office just over 10 years ago, is in federal court alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination created a hostile work environment.

The lawsuit, filed May 6, 2011, went to trial this week.

Heather Aldridge, 48, of Lake Bluff, said she and two other female deputies, Christy Belec of Zion and Pauline Shelton of Beach Park, settled a sexual discrimination complaint in 2002. The three said the were subject to unwanted touching from male officer employees, and that other deputies and superiors requested sexual favors.

According to the new suit, Aldridge alleges she faced further discrimination when she stayed with the department after receiving a smaller award than the other women, who left after that initial suit was settled.

Aldridge contends the sheriff’s office created a hostile work environment for female deputies that included verbal and physical sexual advances, pervasive derogatory name-calling of females by male employees, and pervasive and systematic complaints about her performance based on fictitious and minor infractions.

The suit also alleges at least one female officer employee did comply with demands from one or more superior officers for sexual favors and was promoted. According to court documents, a fellow male trainee forced his way into a female trainee’s home and made sexual advances, which she forcefully refused. The same man allegedly went into the women’s trainee barracks, removed his clothes, masturbated and made lewd and suggestive comments. The suit states two complaints were filed with at least one Illinois State Police supervisor who taught the training classes.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a “Notice of the Right to Sue.”

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office hired its first woman deputy between 1992 and 1993, two more in 1996 and Aldridge came on board in 1997. The sheriff’s office currently employs 11 female deputies at all ranks and 178 males at all ranks.

Aldridge’s attorney, Catherine Simmons-Gill of Catherine Simmons-Gill, LLC, said in opening arguments that the sheriff’s office has hired 37 female deputies that became Grade 1 deputies, less than one a year.

“In that period of time — and this goes up until the end of 2012, when their representative spoke to us — seven of those Grade 1 female deputies have been terminated, and seven of them have resigned quite early,” said Simmons-Gill, according to court transcripts. “So, 38 percent of the Grade 1 deputies that were women, from the beginning, have been either terminated or resigned.”

While not able to address specific allegations because of the ongoing trial, Undersheriff Ray Rose said, “Officially the sheriff’s perspective is the sheriff’s office has made great strides in hiring women. We’re working hard to make the office reflect the community we serve.”

Aldridge’s suit, however, alleges the sheriff’s office treated her differently than male employees when her canine, Grainger, was retired along with Deputy Jill Garross’ dog, Riggs, in early 2009 after 10 years of service. They were the only female K-9 officers.

While male deputies in the Canine Division were retrained with new dogs, Alridge said the women were told to “reapply.” Canine duty is considered prestigious and involves substantial additional pay, which both women allegedly lost when they were not accepted into the unit after reapplying to a newly-formed committee.

After filing a complaint, Aldridge said she was reinstated and provided a dog, Zulu, but she was regularly disciplined and subjected to warnings for failing to show up for training, showing up late or leaving early. Her male counterparts were not subjected to that discipline, Aldridge said, adding that she also was denied training other male deputies received, according to the suit.

In one incident, she was allegedly disciplined for not showing up at canine training Nov. 14, 2009, but she contends she was there. She said trainers advised her to take her canine home because he was vomiting and had diarrhea. Aldridge claims she spent the rest of training time cleaning the squad care and was later cited for “theft of overtime.”

She also said she was written up for taking sick time after being hospitalized in 2009, for failing to hear a dispatch call, and for not video-taping a traffic stop when her squad didn’t have a video camera.

Aldridge said she also was disciplined for failing to issue an adequate number of citations in January 2010. She contends that she issued more than 40, but her superior didn’t count all of them.

One of the odder incidents cited in lawsuit is related to a plastic coyote used to scare away geese on school property in Rondout, located in unincorporated Lake County near Lake Bluff, which got her demoted off the canine unit.

She said she went to the school because of a complaint of a dead or injured dog or coyote. When she arrived about 6 p.m. Jan. 10, 2010, she found a broken plastic coyote that she placed in the trunk of her car. Aldridge said she offered to return the broken one, but the principal declined. Later, Aldridge was cited for failing to enter the broken coyote into evidence and theft of the broken coyote.

As a result, she was suspended for three days, demoted and removed from the canine squad, according to the lawsuit.

The sheriff’s office is represented by attorneys James DeAno and Debra Ann Harvey of DeAno & Scarry, LLC. They could not be reached for comment.

Simmons-Gill said the trial is expected to go into next week.

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