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Parks Police Officer Says Discrimination Kept Her From Promotion

Friday, June 28, 2013
By Pierce Greenberg

Today would have marked 31 years on staff at the Metro Nashville Park Police for decommissioned sergeant Pamela DeSoto.

Instead, she’s fighting for her job against what she refers to as a “good ol’ boy” network within the Metro Department of Parks and Recreation.

Just weeks before completing her 31st year with the park police, DeSoto was stripped of her badge and equipment last month.

The initial allegations filed against DeSoto were mostly administrative, and the parks department recommended dismissal. A departmental review determined the most serious charge, dishonesty, was inconclusive — and now DeSoto is facing a demotion and suspension.

The demotion effectively takes DeSoto out of the running for a lieutenant position with the parks police, a job that opened earlier this year and that she believes was the catalyst for her suspension.

To DeSoto, the latest event is just another hurdle in a career full of them. As the highest-ranking woman on the male-dominated park police unit, she claims to have endured years of unequal treatment.

“This is just déjà vu for me,” she told The City Paper.

“I’m pretty stubborn. When you back me in a corner, then I’m going to fight.”

DeSoto was first hired on as a Metro Parks ranger in 1982. At the time, she was one of the first few females on the force.

“My first week was a really bad one,” DeSoto said. “Anything and everything they could do to me, they did.”

The roll-call room had nude female magazine cutouts hanging from the wall. When she went to check her mail, DeSoto, a lesbian, was greeted by an array of degrading objects: dildos, porn, condoms.

“I had one sergeant tell me one time that a female didn’t deserve to be in Parks or a police officer — that I was taking a man’s job,” DeSoto said. “[He said] I was taking food out of some kid’s mouth because a father couldn’t provide for his family ... that kind of mentality.”

DeSoto learned to deflect the harassment. When she aspired for a promotion, she went back to school — earning an associate degree, then a bachelor’s degree.

Finally, her opportunity came in 1995. A sergeant position opened up, and DeSoto applied. The Metro Parks director at the time hired her, despite protests from co-workers.

“You’re going to have to learn to work for her,” DeSoto recalled the Metro Parks director, Jim Fyke, telling the officers.

DeSoto became the first female sergeant in Metro Park Police history. Over time, she said, the discrimination became less overt. The dildos were gone, but other sergeants didn’t include her on email chains, and some men would stop talking when she entered a room.

When a male was promoted to the next available sergeant position, he was paid more money than she was. According to Desoto’s personnel file, that problem was quickly corrected.

DeSoto soldiered on. When the 2008 presidential debate came to Belmont University, DeSoto’s mounted patrol unit helped police the event. “That was one of the highlights of my career,” she said.

By all accounts, DeSoto was a model employee. A review of her personnel file showed no disciplinary action taken against DeSoto for the first 30 years of her employment.

In December 2012, she was given a 3.7 out of 4 rating on her annual review. Metro Parks police lieutenant George Mitchell wrote “outstanding job” and referred to DeSoto as a “team player” and an “asset to our department.”

But just months later, she was fighting for her job.

The chain of events started when Mitchell decided to take a buyout offered to longtime Metro employees, opening up the highest position available within the park police. DeSoto decided against taking a buyout and instead opted to vie for the top spot.

That’s when things changed.

According to documents obtained by The City Paper, DeSoto was first informed of the charges against her on May 6.

The allegations claim the following:

• DeSoto didn’t inspect any Tasers or other equipment that she was responsible for checking out. She also allegedly told employees to sign her name to indicate the checkout.

• During morning roll call “counseling sessions,” DeSoto “chewed out” officers. She also sometimes held them for an hour or more but had them list the session as only 15 minutes on their time cards.

• DeSoto never assumed leadership of incident commands, but showed up later to “nitpick” the officers handling the incident.

The official charge letter issued to DeSoto alleged inefficient performance of duties, insubordination toward a supervisor, violation of written rules and dishonesty. Capt. Chris Taylor, a Metro Nashville Police Department captain who oversees the park police, recommended that DeSoto be dismissed.

DeSoto also lives on one of a few select Parks Department properties for employees. A dismissal would have expedited an eviction process, leaving her with neither a home nor a job.

“I was so blindsided I could hardly talk. He ripped my dignity,” DeSoto said. “He took the badge out of my back pocket.”

DeSoto disputes the charges against her, calling them “trumped up.” She points out that there isn’t a written policy on equipment checkout and denies “never” inspecting equipment. After she appeared before a departmental review board, the charge of dishonesty was dropped.

But what perturbs DeSoto even more is that after 31 years of service, she was never given a chance for remediation. A Metro Parks officer fired three shots at a car that was driving on the grass during an event at Centennial Park in 2005. That officer, a male, took a firearms training class and is still with the department.

“I think because I’m gay, I think because I’m a female, they were intimidated. I have a perfect record, I have no discipline in my record. ... They were going to make sure, by God, they didn’t have some gay woman over them,” DeSoto said.

“If you look at my career at Parks and you look at what I’ve done and achieved — and the lieutenant’s position coming available and the timing of all this happening — three months before the lieutenant’s exam, all of a sudden I’ve gone rogue ... out of the blue.”

The Metro Parks Department declined to comment about the situation, forwarding all questions to the city’s legal department. Metro attorney Jon Michael had no comment.

If DeSoto were to accept a demotion, which includes a $2.50 per hour deduction in salary, she would also have to be recommissioned by the Metro Nashville Police Department. Instead, she will appeal the decision to the Metro Civil Service Commission.

At age 54, DeSoto said her job prospects aren’t promising, especially without a recommendation from her decades-long employer.

Regardless of a pending Civil Service Commission ruling, DeSoto is considering all her legal options against Metro.

“What bothers me so much is that they did it without any conscience. If any of it was legitimate, then I would have retired,” DeSoto said. “Little did they know that there are good people out there who are going to take notice in this and want to know what happened.”