Dispatchers Win Trial On Inmate Search Issue

Written on 09/02/2022
Will Aitchison

The City of Warren, Michigan employs 20 people as dispatchers and dispatch supervisors – 16 women and four men. The City’s main police station houses the dispatch center where plain­tiffs work, as well as a jail. A group of dispatchers challenged the City’s General Order 19-04 governing arrest procedures for prisoners taken into custody by the Warren Police.

The Order provided that an available male officer should conduct the search of a male prisoner arrested by a female offi­cer. By contrast, when a female prisoner is arrested by a male officer, the Order provided that an available female officer who is on duty and in the station should be called upon to conduct the search prior to calling upon a female dispatcher to perform the search. The search was to be conducted by a female dispatcher when there are no female officers on duty and in the building at the time of booking. There is no provision for male dispatchers to ever search a prisoner. The City’s policies have required female dispatchers to conduct prisoner searches since the mid-1970’s.

Only 7% of the Warren police force is made up of female sworn officers of various ranks (approximately 14 of 200 officers are female). Faced with a police force made up of very few female officers, and a requirement that female prisoners be searched by a female, the Department took measures to ensure that at least one female officer was on duty at the jail during all shifts.

In a sex discrimination lawsuit, the dispatchers contended that the City’s General Order impermissibly discrimi­nated against female dispatchers on the basis of sex, creating two separate and unequal workplaces for its dispatcher employees. The dispatchers described instances in which they were required to conduct searches without officer backup, searched a subject with a knife, struggled with prisoners who were intoxicated and verbally and physically aggressive, searched arrestees with open wounds and sores, or who were high on drugs. Some dispatchers have come into contact with an arrestee’s blood or urine, and some have performed strip searches alone without assistance from a sworn officer.

The City filed a motion seeking summary judgment, arguing that its policies followed Michigan law, which requires that prisoner strip searches be conducted by a person of the same sex as the person being searched. However, the Court found, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires an employer to explore reasonable alternatives if an oth­erwise legitimate policy has an adverse impact on members of a protected class.

The Court held that several possi­ble alternatives existed: “One proposed alternative is that female prisoners should be held in a secure location at the Department until a female police officer becomes available. There is at least one female officer assigned to the jail on every 12-hour shift. Leaving a prisoner unsearched for approximately 20 minutes in a jail processing area is generally reasonable.

“There is no clear evidence pre­sented by the City why the female officer on duty in the building may not be available within 20 minutes to perform a search. The fact that female dispatchers have been called upon to do searches at an increasing rate even though there is a female officer at the jail on every shift raises even more questions.

“Another proposed alternative is that the Department should seek out female police officers from the field before utilizing a female dispatcher to perform an intake search. The City rejects this option because it argues it takes too much time for an officer to return to the station from their patrol. At the very least, there is a material issue of fact regarding the time required for an officer to return from patrol to the station such that the reasonableness of this alternative can be evaluated.

“A third proposed alternative is that the Department could request female officer aid from an adjoining jurisdiction before utilizing a female dispatcher to perform an intake search. The Department allows its female officers to travel to other departments to search female arrestees. The City provides factual support on why this proposed alternative is not reasonable.”

Denying the City’s summary judgment motion, the Court set the matter for trial.

DeVooght v. City of Warren, 2022 WL 413238 (E.D. Mich. 2022).

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