Transgender Police Officer Still Fighting For Equality
November 23, 2011
All Dana Peterson wanted was to be a K-9 handler, a canine cop. Years ago, the Hartford police lieutenant began paying for animal training at her own expense. The list of conferences and classes she's attended runs for pages, and her training has put her in contact with every species — from chickens to beluga whales. Her dog training education, in particular, includes — but is not limited to — obedience, scent work, protection, attack training, tracking, tricks, and behaviorial problems.
She even had a dog she was willing to donate for police training.
But at every turn, Hartford police said no. Time and again, Peterson's attorney, Jamie L. Mills, says the department manipulated the selection criteria to exclude her from a certification course, all while some members of the force harassed her by leaving obscene drawings of male genitalia in public spaces, by referring to Peterson, who is transgendered, as "it." Before she joined the force, Peterson, who was born a male, underwent sex reassignment surgery, and though she never made that publicly known at work, she's had pornography left in her mailbox, and endured continual haranguing from some colleagues, she said.
Peterson's discrimination lawsuit will come before the state appellate court later this month. The lawsuit — which is years old —- alleges that Peterson has been denied the job she wants because she is a transgender person. The city has fought her, as they fought (unsuccessfully) to keep her from joining the force in the early '90s. She's nearing her 20-year mark, and police dogs commonly stay active for as long as eight years. By keeping her from participating in the K-9 handler certfication process, HPD has tried to, as Peterson says, "run out the clock."
Connecticut includes trangender in its anti-discrimination laws. Peterson just wants a shot at reaching her goal. She's climbed the promotion ladder based on her test scores, though she says at one point, a former chief eliminated a promotion list. She was at the top of that list, and when the chief requested she drop her discrimination complaint, she refused. She says he killed the list.
Peterson, who says she's been "a pariah" at the department, said, "There are some very good people at HPD and I even have some friends in this department. But there are also enough bad people to make my time in HPD miserable."
Not every transgender person has met with such treatment. Peterson's friend Courtney Pollack went through sex reassignment surgery seven years ago after working for a year at another male-dominated workplace, ESPN.
"You would think it's very male-dominated, but it's also very forward thinking," said Pollack, a broadcast engineer. "They treated me with respect and that went all the way up to the top."
In response to an email asking for comment, Hartford police Chief Daryl K. Roberts wrote: "As a rule, I don't discuss personnel or disclose personnel matters publicly." But Stanley Wasilewski, who retired from HPD in 2000 after a little over 21 years on the force, is more than happy to talk about his former colleague. He became Peterson's mentor and describes the highers-ups at the time thus: "Nobody wanted to deal with Dana."
"In all honesty, she's one of the most decent people I know," said Wasilewski. "She's not vindictive or nasty like some people, and she hasn't been given a fair shake. Why shouldn't she?"
Along with videos of her training dogs and other animals, Peterson has on her computer a photo of her on her first night on the job. Within her first 10 days on the street, she answered the call for a homicide at Charter Oak Terrace, Wasilewski said.
"She's a hard worker," he said. "She hasn't forgotten where she's come from. She's a smart woman, but the deck was stacked against her."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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