Role reversal

Gender, perceptions complicate detective's sexual assault case



Missoula Police Department Detective Chris Shermer says that he felt humiliated last spring when a female officer allegedly sexually assaulted him inside MPD's downtown headquarters in front of a civilian employee.

"I was shocked by this behavior," Shermer says in an affidavit filed this month with the Missoula District Court. "In all of the years of my law enforcement, and even my military background, I had never had anything like this ever happen to me."

Shermer is a 12-year law-enforcement veteran who frequently garners headlines for his work nabbing individuals who victimize children. This time, Shermer says that he's the one who was harmed. Shermer alleges in court documents that in April 2012, Lt. Sandy Kosena, a higher ranking officer, "ran her pinky finger between my buttocks. She then leaned in close to my back and whispered a sexual innuendo in my ear."

Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Anne Medley
  • Missoula Police Department Detective Chris Shermer, pictured here in 2010, alleges a female officer “ran her pinky finger between my buttocks” and “whispered a sexual innuendo in my ear.”

In legal filings, Shermer says that he was embarrassed after the incident. He worried that another incident would follow. That night, Shermer talked over what happened with his wife. The next day, with her blessing, Shermer filed a formal complaint against Kosena with the MPD.

Shermer's claims have not been substantiated and Kosena, along with MPD, vigorously dispute them.

In his legal filings, Shermer alleges that his complaints weren't taken seriously and that one superior officer in particular, Capt. Chris Odlin, ridiculed him. "It made me look like the guilty party for even suggesting that Lieutenant Sandy Kosena's behavior was wrong," Shermer says in the filings. "Some people have suggested that I 'suck it up' and 'be a man.'"

The "be a man" perception poses some additional complications in Shermer's case, says Beth Hubble, co-chair of the University of Montana Women's and Gender Studies Program. She cautions that the portrayal of men as always strong and stoic often colors discussions about sexual harassment and prevents males from reporting that they've been victimized.

"We so much see masculinity as being about being in power and in control," Hubble says. "Women are very unlikely to report, and men even more so, any kind of sexual related offense."

Similarly, Hubble says that there's a commonly held belief that men are always eager to enjoy sexual interactions with women, regardless of the setting, and that's not the case. Losing the ability to control one's own body, as occurs with sexual assault, makes all victims feel powerless, regardless of their gender.

"(There's) an assumption in this society that all men want sex and they want it all the time," she says. "And so, why would a man react negatively to that? That's a problem in terms of how we view (these claims)."

Shermer argues that in light of a new set of sexual assault policies MPD adopted one month before he was allegedly assaulted, Kosena's actions should have been deemed criminal. Had the victim been female, Shermer says that he believes his complaint would have been scrutinized more thoroughly. That's why he filed a lawsuit in March, naming MPD, Police Chief Mark Muir, Kosena and Odlin as defendants. He alleges assault, negligence, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation.

"I was concerned that had the roles been reversed, there would have been a different outcome with the Police Department's investigation," Shermer says in court documents, "so I proceeded accordingly."

Muir argues in an affidavit filed in response to Shermer's case that since 2004 there have been six other claims of sexual harassment or discrimination filed by MPD employees. Of those, Kosena was punished more severely than any other officer. She received a two-day suspension with pay and a formal notice of discipline banning promotion for one year. Similarly, Odlin was admonished for, according to MPD's filings, expressing "his personal opinions" to a friend.

Kosena, for her part, has consistently maintained that she only patted Shermer on the behind. In legal filings, MPD's Missoula attorneys, William L. Crowley and Natasha Prinzing Jones, say that Kosena was being playful and that the incident marked "a continuation of camaraderie, the past jovial relationship between Mr. Shermer and herself." The defendants also argue that Shermer sparked Kosena's behavior earlier that same day, when he, as a joke, flipped Kosena and another officer off. "Plaintiff's action of flipping his middle finger in the direction of Defendant Kosena was effective consent to her conduct," MPD claims.

Jones tells the Independent that MPD followed all proper legal protocol. "Mr. Shermer's claim should be dismissed," she says.

As for Shermer, he worries about how this case is changing the way his colleagues and the public perceive him. "None of those gainsayers live inside my head," Shermer says in court filings. "None of them have to go to work with the same superior officer who committed an assault on me, and who got by with it. None of them have to deal with the stares, glares, and rolling eyes of fellow officers..."


Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment