A Westbrook police officer says she intends to sue the city, claiming that members of the department harassed her for issuing a speeding ticket to another officer’s girlfriend.
Officer Melissa May filed a notice of claim Aug. 20, announcing her intention to file a lawsuit alleging violations of the Maine Human Rights Act, including sexual harassment, hostile work environment, discrimination on the basis of gender, retaliation and whistleblower discrimination.
Although the complaint focuses on alleged sexual harassment, May’s account describes the cultural pressure against ticketing people associated with police officers.
After she issued the speeding ticket, May was told by other members of the department that Sgt. John Desjardins and Officer Jeffrey Stackpole referred to her by a derogatory name, according to her claim. May said she was told that an internal department investigation found that Desjardins and Stackpole admitted to using the offensive word but denied it was in reference to her.
Desjardins declined to comment on the allegations Thursday. Stackpole did not return a voice message or email seeking comment.
Mayor Colleen Hilton said Thursday in a written statement that the city will continue to work with May and her attorney to resolve the complaint and avoid costly litigation.
“We were surprised and disappointed to receive (the notice of claim) given the effort made to address her concerns and maintain a workplace free of harassment and discrimination, a goal to which we remain committed,” Hilton said.
In a chronology of events included in the claim, May said that on Jan. 15 she pulled over a woman driving 45 mph in what May thought was a 30 mph zone on Saco Street.
The vehicle had a sticker on its license plate with a thin blue line, a symbol of support for or association with law enforcement, which May said indicated the driver was “asking for a break.” She said the woman told her twice that her boyfriend was a cop.
May issued the woman a speeding ticket for going 39 mph in a 30 mph zone.
Back at the police station, she relayed her experience to two colleagues, including Officer Benjamin Hall, and complained about the woman’s attitude and that she kept saying her boyfriend was a cop. Hall said it was his girlfriend that May had ticketed.
“I told him to tell her to go to court and I would take care of it,” May wrote. She then asked Hall if he wanted her “to rip it up” and he said not to because “it was a good lesson for her and that she should not be telling officers that she is dating a cop.”
A few days later, May said, another officer started giving her a hard time in the patrol room about the ticket. A third officer in the room said his brother, who works for the Windham Police Department, also had pulled over Hall’s girlfriend, who told the officer her boyfriend was a cop and he didn’t give her a ticket.
During the conversation, May said, Hall walked into the room and asked to speak to May in private. He told her he had a sergeant pull up the video of the traffic stop and that “pretty much the whole department” watched it, although he didn’t mean for that to happen. However, Hall also said he didn’t see a problem with his girlfriend’s attitude in the video and he didn’t know why May had complained about it. He also told May she had made a mistake about the speed limit there, which is actually 35 mph.
May said Hall told her that “others were saying (May) should have ripped up the ticket and that he should not have had to ask,” but he acknowledged that she took the correct action.
In the next two months, May said she heard twice from other officers that Stackpole and Desjardins, whose wife is related to Hall, had referred to her by a derogatory name.
May took the matter to Chief Michael Pardue, then City Administrator Jerre Bryant and, finally, to Mayor Hilton.
May said she was told that, after an internal investigation, Desjardins received a one-day suspension without pay and that Stackpole was fighting disciplinary action.
When Hall and his girlfriend came to court for her speeding ticket in April, May dismissed the case.
“I do not believe that officers or family members or friends of officers should receive special treatment, but I was afraid of retaliation from members of the Westbrook Police Department,” May wrote.
Westbrook public safety and Pardue, in particular, are not new to sexual harassment claims.
The city originally hired Pardue as a consultant in 2010 to lead the fire department through a transition, after sexual harassment claims by two female firefighters led to the discipline of several members of the department and the abrupt retirement of the chief.
The female firefighters, who sued the city in 2009 for failing to address their complaints, received a combined settlement of about $846,000 in exchange for dropping the suit. Their lawyer, Rebecca Webber, also is representing May, who has been with the department for nearly five years. Webber did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.