3 officers file gender discrimination lawsuit against Topeka Police, Chief Wheeles

13 News at Six
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 4:56 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Three high-ranking officers are suing the Topeka Police Dept. and its leader, alleging gender discrimination.

Captains Colleen Stuart and Jana Harden and Lt. Jennifer Cross filed a civil lawsuit Jan. 18 in U.S. District Court.

They claim they were passed over for promotions to deputy chief and major, despite having more experience and higher education than the men who received those jobs. Their filing also details several incidents of being reprimanded for social media posts and behavior, when male officers did not face questions for similar actions.

The lawsuit contains counts against the city of gender discrimination under Title VII and violating the officers’ 14th Amendment rights to equal protection. They also accuse TPD Chief Bryan Wheeles individually of violating their 14th Amendment rights.

In a statement, City of Topeka spokesperson Gretchen Spiker said the city is aware of the lawsuit, and would not comment on pending litigation.

“The city takes claims of this nature very seriously and has full faith that the justice system will resolve this issue,” Spiker said.

The allegations in the lawsuit detail the process Wheeles used to appoint his deputy chief in Nov. 2021. The lawsuit states Stuart, Harden and three men were considered qualified internal candidates. According to the lawsuit, no interviews were held for the position and Cpt. Jamey Haltom (who is male) was selected. Harden and Stuart contend they hold more experience and master’s degrees.

The lawsuit also details interviews in Dec. 2021 for a major’s position. Harden, Stuart and Cpt. Michael Cross were all interviewed, with Michael Cross selected. According to the lawsuit, Stuart raised concerns about knowledge of Michael Cross’ attendance record and trustworthiness. The lawsuit notes TPD has had one female major and no female deputy chief in its history.

The lawsuit also details Harden being passed over three times for open positions on the SWAT team. She states she passed all physical requirements and scenario drills, but was told “the leadership of the team did not want a female,” according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs also give several examples of what they believed to be different treatment based on their gender. Harden says she was asked to discuss with Jennifer Cross “unlady-like” conduct, such as sitting with her legs apart or her hands behind her head. According to the lawsuit, Harden did not have those conversations because she felt it was “discriminatory and inappropriate.”

Similarly, Jennifer Cross said she was reprimanded for a social media video from a 2018 dance concert. According to the lawsuit, she and a dance teacher were invited on stage and Cross did a front handspring. Cross states she was told the social media post was “unbecoming of a commander.” The lawsuit points out that, soon after, then-chief Bill Cochran appeared on social media dressed as Cher for a charity event with no discipline. They claim at least two other male officers also had questionable social media content, with no reprimands.

In the lawsuit, Jennifer Cross alleges a male officer serving under her routinely circumvented her in the chain of command and his conduct was “creating a hostile work environment.” Cross states she raised the concerns with her supervisor and, when it was not addressed, she met with the city’s human resource director. Among Cross’ other claims, she states she was passed over for a promotion by two men with less experience, one whom she had trained. According to the lawsuit, Cross also filed a complaint in Spring 2022 about officers not complying with dress code requirements, and supervisors being allowed to undermine her authority on the issue. The city substantiated Cross’ complaint.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial in Kansas City, Kan. The filing shows a demand of $1.5 million.