Former state patrol cadet says she was harassed in academy

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DENVER -- The Colorado State Patrol is facing a federal lawsuit by a former female cadet who claims the department created a hostile work environment toward women.

The lawsuit is another blow to the state patrol that has faced three other employment discrimination cases in recent years, costing taxpayers a little more than a million dollars in judgments or payouts.

The latest lawsuit by former patrol cadet Kessiva Merrett claims leaders and instructors of the state patrol training academy created a pattern of harassment consisting of intimidation, ridicule, insults and humiliation based on Merret’s gender.

“All I wanted to do is be with my class and earn my way,” Merrett said.

Merrett claimed she was forced to resign after three weeks at the academy. Three other women who were accepted to the program also resigned before the end of the grueling 22-week training program.

In Merrett’s legal complaint, she said the all-male drill sergeants would break into the lockers of female cadets and make the women “ask permission” to get items like cells phones and purses back.

She also claimed the drill sergeants would confront her in front of the class when she needed to take a break to take care of feminine hygiene issues.

But Merrett said she was most humiliated after the first day of training while doing exercises with her class injuring her back.

“I communicated I couldn’t continue and they [drill sergeants] said, ‘You will.’ and I said, ‘OK’ and I did," Merrett said. "The next thing was me falling to the ground and you heard me screaming in pain.”

She said one of the male drill sergeants took her to the emergency room and stayed by her side during the entire medical exam -- while she was nearly naked.

“It was the open gown, without any reasonable clothing, and he stayed there and he lingered and he watched," Merrett said.

Too scared to ask a superior officer to leave the room, Merrett said she kept her mouth shut.

“He controlled the whole thing,” Merrett said. “It was very embarrassing and him, knowing my history, and everything I said [to the doctor.]”

The State Patrol declined comment on the pending lawsuit.

 Merrett’s Patrol Academy Experience

At an early age Merrett always dreamed about being a police officer.

“I was raised to believe that you make your way in society. You find a way to make a contribution and you do it,” she said.

In late 2012, after graduating from college with a degree in Criminal Justice, the mother of three applied to the Colorado State Patrol.

“It had a great reputation for being the best. They were strong, they had great character and it was very strong sense of values,” Merrett said.

All together 10,000 men and women applied for a position at the Colorado State Patrol, but only 36 were accepted. Merrett was one of four women who made it through the application process.

“I was very proud to be there,” she said.

We were able to obtain video shot by the Colorado State Patrol on her first day of training through an open records request.

The video clips show a quasi-military style drill sergeant who can be seen and heard yelling at Merrett and fellow cadets.

“They were loud. They were boisterous, rough tough and of course you expect that,” Merrett said.

Internal Affairs Investigation

After Merrett filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Office, the Colorado State Patrol did an internal affairs investigation into two training academy employees.

FOX31 Denver requested copies of the completed investigative files under Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act.  Those files are considered part of the public record and not part of an employee’s employment file.

In a letter to FOX31 Denver, the CSP denied the request because, “disclosure of the entire internal affairs file would implicate considerable privacy interests of both CSP employees and third parties who participated in the investigation.”

Under a Colorado Supreme Court case, police agency must do a balance test to determine the publics’ right to know outcomes of internal affairs investigation on officers.

The CSP strongly believes releasing the findings “could harm CSP’s performance of its duties by unnecessarily distracting its officers from their public duties and potentially tarnishing the records and reputation of its officers due to unfounded complaints.”

The patrol felt it was not the public’s right to know whether or not these two employees did nothing wrong or if they were disciplined.

State Patrol Diversity

We obtained an email written by State Patrol Chief Scott Hernandez with the subject in all caps, “IMPORTANT MESSAGE ABOUT DIVERSITY – PLEASE READ.”

The email starts with, “It saddens me to write a letter of this nature but feel the subject matter must be addressed in an upfront and transparent way.”

He blasted some members of the patrol for complaints and accusations of a culture of being non-accepting of diversity.

“We must address this issue as a critical part of moving forward,” Hernandez wrote in his March 2013 email.

In one part of the email he references an instructor who made negative comments about women.

Hernandez said one instructor made a comment that women don’t belong in law.  The instructor was dismissed and no longer part of the state patrol.

“I am absolutely angry when any representation of this uniform is tainted by inappropriate behavior,” Hernandez said.

He said the email was written to put employees on notice that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

The patrol faced three other discrimination complaints over the years.

One by a former female trooper who claimed she was passed up for promotions for less qualified men. He case was settled out of court.

The other two were by gay men who claimed the patrol had a homophobic culture.

One of those cases was settled and the other case is on appeal.

Hernandez denied his organization has a diversity issue, but said the past lawsuits does have the patrol looking into making better decisions.

Hernandez was sworn into the chief’s position last year and was not in charge during the employment discrimination claims.

While he was unable to speak about the Merrett case, he said that diversity training is on-going.

“The reality is that people make mistakes. I make mistakes. People make mistakes," Hernandez said. "The bottom line is you don’t put your head in the gutter, you learn from those mistake.”

‘I am Woman’ campaign

After we began asking questions about diversity at the State Patrol, the agency released a new video on Sept. 25 titled “I Am A Trooper.”

The video was released a day after our interview with Hernandez concerning female troopers.

The video is being used as a recruiting video specifically aimed at women.

The nearly 3 minute video posted on YouTube shows female troopers in various roles in the State Patrol and when they are not in uniform.

According to the state patrol women make up 6 percent of troopers in uniform, well below the national average of 12 percent, according to a 2011 numbers provided by the FBI.

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