After it was revealed Sunday that the Oakland Police Department asks officer applicants to disclose whether they have been sexually assaulted, Mayor Libby Schaaf said she has ordered the removal of that waiver.
The revelation, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, was said to be a rare and potentially problematic inquiry. Schaaf released a statement Sunday in response to the newspaper report:
"Today I ordered the immediate removal of a waiver where OPD applicants authorize the release of confidential records, including those that would disclose whether they are victims of sexual assault.
"Additionally, I directed the department to partner with the Oakland Police Commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the department’s recruitment and hiring process to ensure no other barriers discourage the hiring of women or minority applicants. Sexual assault survivors have persevered through trauma, and their resilience is a character quality we respect, honor, and welcome in Oakland."
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San Jose employment attorney Lori Costanzo said the confidentiality waiver could leave the city open for lawsuits brought by civil rights groups or female applicants.
"It certainly seems to discriminate, on its face, against women," Costanzo said. "It’s certainly not going to affect men applicants as it is women because women are the majority of those who have been victimized by sexual assault."
The Chronicle queried police in the state's 10 most populous cities and could not find another instance of screening for sexual assault victims.
Legal experts told the newspaper the inquiry is odd and potentially problematic, but there is disagreement over whether it's illegal.
Oakland police officials said a candidate would not be denied a position for being a sexual assault victim. Officials said they want the information so they can review police reports in which applicants may appear.
The disclosure request is on a release form that has been in use since at least 2011, well before the #MeToo movement that started a year ago with accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The question comes up when recruits sign and get notarized a form that allows the Police Department to conduct a background check on them to determine suitability. The form authorizes, for example, the release of educational transcripts, credit history and local criminal history information, "including if I have been a victim of sexual assault."
Oakland Police Officer Marco Marquez said the department's background investigators are "interested in every police report that an applicant might appear in," including whether the person was a suspect, witness or victim.
But questions about an applicant being a witness or suspect are not asked, the newspaper said.
The Oakland application practice is inexcusable, said retired Portland, Oregon, Police Chief Penny Harrington, the first woman to lead a major city police force.
"There's absolutely no reason to be doing that," said Harrington, who founded the National Center for Women and Policing. "I can't imagine why they would need to know that information, except as a way to wash out women."
Professor Joan Williams, an expert on employment law and sex discrimination at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, called the disclosure requirement "clearly illegal."
"The stereotype is that women who have been sexually assaulted turn into raging ids and tear machines and could never be objective again," she said.
Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law School professor who studies equal protection and sex discrimination, disagrees that the question is illegal, saying it's posed to men and women.
But she too finds the disclosure request puzzling. "I don't know if the assumption is that someone who's been a victim can't be objective," she said.
The newspaper reported that representatives of police departments in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Anaheim and Santa Ana said they do not ask applicants to disclose whether they are sexual assault victims.