Sheriff’s office updating policy following ex-deputy claims of broken promises
CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - A former Charleston County Sheriff’s Office deputy says she experienced retaliation when breaking “the blue wall of silence” after reporting sexual harassment by a supervisor.
But when the department made promises to make changes a few years later, she says the changes did not come.
Rickie Biggs comes from a long line of proud members of law enforcement. It was not her first choice in a career but soon became a calling.
“I just felt like God was pushing me putting all these signs in my way to be a police officer,” she said. “I was meant to do this.”
She accepted a job at the sheriff’s office and graduated at the top of her class in the academy.
But at her dream job, she says she found there was an ugly truth: a culture that gave harassers a pass and shunned those who spoke out.
After years of this, it was the actions of one supervisor under then Sheriff Al Cannon, that drove her colleagues to report it for her.
This superseded the chain of command.
“He would make humping motions toward me,” Biggs said. “He was constantly saying that my breath smelled like sex and male body parts, he would say that my car smelled like that every day all day long. He waved dollar bills in my face and made a comment about how don’t act like I haven’t had that happen to me before basically calling me a stripper... for me, this was normal.”
That supervisor, Sergeant Matthew McGailliard was fired, but not before she says the internal investigation subjected her to more harassment.
Unable to focus at work, Biggs then took a break from the job under the Family Medical Leave Act.
“It was hell,” Biggs said.
Three years later, Biggs reached a confidential settlement with the department. Biggs received a $200,000 payout and asked for several desired changes to the way the department handled reporting.
In signing the agreement, current Sheriff Kristin Graziano made a promise to have those changes implemented.
That included reports to be made to the county’s human resources department instead of internal affairs.
“When we got our new sheriff, I didn’t think that I would have any more issues,” she said.
Biggs returned from medical leave with a renewed sense of hope.
But a year later, Joyce Smith, the former chief deputy of the department, filed her federal lawsuit and Biggs says she realized those promises were not kept.
In the filing, Smith describes how the county’s HR department turned her away when she wanted to report harassment, including a high-ranking internal affairs investigator.
“More than 70% of folks that had experienced sexual harassment had experienced some kind of retaliation if they had spoken out,” Jennifer Mondino, the director of the TIME’S UP legal defense fund with the National Women’s Law Center, said.
The fund connects those experiencing sex discrimination with legal assistance. Since it was created five years ago, they have spoken to thousands of victims.
“It’s a very real fear that people have and then, unfortunately, it is a fear that is well grounded,” Mondino added.
It was one of Biggs’ fears too, and the rumors, threats on her job and even her life all came true. She describes an incident where a SWAT team had drawn their guns on her after she was told to wait at the scene where a search warrant would be conducted, undercover and in plain clothes.
“I just remember looking over to the car that they came out of and seeing their supervisor who was good friends with some of the supervisors who got in trouble with my incident, and he was just smirking,” she said. “I just remember the smile on his face, to me it was like, ‘oh I’ll show you I can get you anytime.’”
Biggs believes this was an intimidation tactic.
“When you work in an environment where the people next to you, they determine if you live or die if you go home at night,” she said. So they have to like you. If more women had come forward sooner. What happened to me would never have happened.”
In a Freedom of Information Act request, the sheriff’s office released all internal affairs investigations into workplace harassment in the last five years. There were ten total, four for sexual harassment.
“Nobody talks about it; It’s like a secret that you don’t talk about,” Biggs said. “When you have supervisors who say that they don’t know what sexual harassment is. That’s a problem.”
Another problem Biggs pointed out was that internal affairs investigators were investigating their friends and higher-ranking deputies than themselves. The details of her investigation did not remain private, either.
How the department handles these cases can have a ripple effect throughout the community, according to Mondino.
“You need the officers to be believing folks and taking action when they get reports from their own folks... or when they get reports from people in the community that they’re meant to protect,” she said.
The department’s anti-harassment policy has not changed since 2013, but all policies are undergoing a review process and will be updated.
Statement from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office:
While the policy is still not complete as a result of discussions with counsel involved in the litigation, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has made changes in procedures for handling reports of job-related harassment. CCSO permits complainants to report harassment in any form to their immediate supervisor or another office they are most comfortable with. This includes another supervisor in their chain of command, Human Resources and/or the Office of Professional Standards.
The proposed policy addresses how the investigations would be handled. HR would investigate all complaints of sexual harassment confidentially and thoroughly but would make referrals to OPS where appropriate. OPS would continue to conduct investigations that could result in a separation due to misconduct in order to fulfill S.C. Criminal Justice Academy standards for revocation of a former employee’s law enforcement certification.
CCSO continues diligent efforts to ensure the revised policy properly addresses concerns. We are changing the policy not just because of the litigation but because it was outdated and needed to be changed. Open communication with counsel on the development of the draft is ongoing, and we will continue to comply with the spirit and intent of the agreement. Harassment has no place in our agency or our society, and we take all reports of such behavior seriously and deal with them effectively.
“It feels great. A little bitter though because I don’t understand why I had to fight so hard just to get a decent sexual harassment policy in 2022,” Biggs said. “We’re supposed to be better.”
Biggs has since left the department and law enforcement entirely. Despite her experiences, she says she does not regret her time as a deputy.
She hopes her story can make enough impact that more women will feel welcome enough to join the force.
“That’s the only way things are going to get better,” she said.
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