APD officer sues city, supervisor, charges sexual discrimination

[Editor's note: This story contains detailed allegations couched in sexually explicit language.]

Violating its mission?:A medal with the mission statement of the APD. An officer has sued the city and her supervisor, alleging that, contrary to department policies, extensive sexual discrimination and harassment went unpunished. Special to the Mountain Xpress

Alleging that city officials ignored and retaliated against her complaints of repeated sexual discrimination, Officer Cherie Byrd of the Asheville Police Department is suing the city and her supervisor in federal court.

In the suit, filed March 26, Byrd alleges, among other things, that her superiors in the Police Department repeatedly refused to take action when she reported that her supervisor in the Drug Suppression Unit, Sgt. Eric Lauffer, sent her sexually explicit text messages and phone calls beginning in the summer of 2008 and continuing into 2009.

"Over this time, the texts in particular become more sexually explicit," the suit alleges. "One text featured a cartoon character humping the floor with the caption 'I'd hit it like this.' Lauffer added the following text to the message: 'You have just been phone fucked! P.S. you can not fuck me back no matter how bad you may wanna.' Other texts contained messages such as 'I must licky you' and 'I am just a man. Never satisfied always wanting more.' He also texted her a picture of the back side of a naked man and implied in another message she was a ho," the suit reads.

Lauffer's texts, according to the suit, weren't limited to the sexually offensive, but also included remarks "derogative of the African-American race and highly offensive to Ms. Byrd. For example, in November 2008, he said that 'the election is making me sick' because he had the 'Obama flu' and that 'due to recent events: grape soda, red kool-aid, fried chicken, malt liquor, menthol cigarettes and gold teeth will be tax exempt.'"

Lauffer was named one of the APD's officers of the year in 2008.

The suit alleges that when Byrd brought Lauffer's behavior to the attention of her superiors, including police Chief Bill Hogan, she received no response. In March 2009, she provided copies of the texts to the department's Internal Affairs Division and was told by Hogan months later "that corrective action was taken. Chief Hogan did not explain what corrective action had been taken. He told Ms. Byrd he could provide no further details of the investigation."

Eventually, Byrd maintains in the suit, she was told that she would have to remain under Lauffer's supervision to stay in the Drug Suppression Unit. When she continued with her complaints, she alleges her newer patrol car was reassigned to a junior male officer. In November of last year, she says she met with Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson, then-Human Resources Director Lisa Roth and City Attorney Bob Oast, and they told her that the matter would be investigated. Byrd was placed on administrative leave at that time.

"Ms. Byrd has never received notice that the investigation has been completed or the result of such an investigation," the suit reads. "The city and the APD did not follow their own policy regarding the procedure for responding to complaints of sexual harassment."

Even before Lauffer's behavior, the suit alleges, the APD had treated Byrd and three other female officers in discriminatory fashion. When they were shot at in the line of duty in 2007 and '08, the suit maintains, senior officers doubted their stories and neglected to provide any mental health support. According to the suit, Byrd now has post-traumatic stress disorder due to the shootings and cannot continue in her job.

Last December, Byrd took her complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which informed her that she had the right to sue under federal law. She's seeking compensation for "severe emotional pain and suffering," lost time due to sexual harassment, and compensation for "her inability to continue employment with the APD."

For now, the city is keeping silent concerning the lawsuit. "At this time, all I am able to tell you is the response will be forthcoming within the 60 days allowed [by law]," city spokesperson Dawa Hitch wrote in an e-mail to Xpress.

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