Three young women say they were sexually harassed and retaliated against while participants in an Aurora, Colorado, police department programme encouraging teenagers to explore careers in law enforcement, according to a federal lawsuit.
“We learned that it’s police vs. everyone else,” Kaitlyn Rooney, 21, told The Denver Gazette on Sunday, of her time in the department’s Explorers initiative. “They will protect their own, even if it’s not right.”
The suit, filed in US District Court last month, accuses the department of employment discrimination and retaliation, alleging department higher-ups knew that the then-teenagers were being sexually harassed, at times by supervisors, and failed to take meaningful action. The trio were dismissed in 2019 in what they allege in the suit was retaliation for their complaints.
The lawsuit alleges a host of shocking conduct by both officers at the department and youth participants in the Explorers programme who had a supervisory role over the plaintiffs.
In one alleged instance, a male Explorer with a leadership role, refered to in the suit by his initials, AB, sent a series of “unwelcomed” text messages to Ms Rooney in November 2018.
“Even if there wasn’t gravity on earth, I’d still fall for you. Just a nightly pickup line lol. Goodnight, sleep well. (Talk to you) tomorrow,” one alleged message read.
Ms Rooney and her mother then reported the messages to multiple police supervisors as well as a human resources representative, but AB never received any formal discipline.
The fellow teen allegedly remained Ms Rooney’s supervisor, and penalised her for fake infractions like uniform violations and “giving attitude,” at one point placing a phone call to her where he “screamed at her to inform her that discipline was forthcoming.”
The following January, while in Arizona for a police apprenticeship programme, Ms Rooney again tried to report her experience to an Aurora officer, and was made to endure 10 minutes of non-stop exercise in a hot parking lot.
“It’s going to be documented as far as, again, today how this is being addressed it’s going to be documented - ‘plank - get your butt down,” one of the officers she came to allegedly was recorded as saying during the exercises.
Ms Rooney alleges Aurora PD staff also made inappropriate jokes about Explorers having relationships with each other or Aurora police themselves.
“Plaintiff Rooney, after being sexually harassed by a repeat offender, subjected to demeaning language by her adult, male supervisors, and subjected to discriminatory corporal punishment, was discharged for allegedly wrongful conduct while her perpetrator, A.B. received no consequences and has the potential to graduate with full preference points to become an Aurora Police Department officer should he choose to do so,” the lawsuit reads.
Ms Rooney wasn’t the only one with an alleged experience of harassment at the department.
During an exercise in November 2018 witnessed by multiple people, another male Explorer, named by his initials as SA, allegedly used a practice search to grab the breast of a female participant named Rupjot Nagra.
When Ms Nagra reported the incident to multiple senior officers, she was allegedly told that because SA “touched [an] Explorers breast, which is inappropriate, there has to be a consequence.”
But no consequence ever came, according to the lawsuit, and the teen continued coming back to the programme uninterupted, including doing other search exercises with female participants.
According to a memo cited by the suit, SA had previously been warned that “he should not touch females in the upper chest when searching them as it is inappropriate,” but continued to perform search exercises anyway.
Ms Nagra was also present during the alleged forced excercises in Arizona, which no male Explorers were asked to participate in.
Later, a male officer seemed to refer to her participation and remarked that “fat people” shouldn’t wear leggings, an apparent reference to Ms Nagra’s attire during the incident. The suit alleges the officer made the comment while “sitting in his chair and rubbing his abdominal region.”
The same individual who allegedly assaulted Ms Nagra, SA, was involved in a third incident with an Explorer named Teona Mirceska.
Mirceska alleges that SA made her lie on her stomach during a training excercise, then put his bare hand up her shirt and moved it up to her bra line, only stopping once, according to the suit, she “jumped in shock and indicated he should not do that.”
Nine months later, the incident was investigated, and police concluded the allegations of misconduct were “unfounded.”
After each raising their concerns with the departments, all three women were eventually dismissed in 2019.
The dismissal came, according to the lawsuit, after the teens engaged in “private text message conversations and being associated with a private, non-public Instagram page on which a party who is not a party to this lawsuit posted content from the private text message conversations.”
The teens appealed the dismissal and were allegedly told they could be reinstated in 2022, but only if they then voluntarily resigned.
The Independent has contacted the Aurora Police Department for comment.
The department has been under scrutiny in recent years for the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man.
Police stopped McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, on 24 August 2019 after a 911 caller reported a “sketchy” person walking home from a convenience store. He was not suspected of any crime.
Officers put the Colorado man in a high-risk carotid hold neck restraint, knocking him unconscious.
He was later injected by paramedics with ketamine, a strong sedative, and died in the hospital a few days later.