New Police Stations

A former Ocean City police officer alleges in a lawsuit she was routinely sexually harassed by male officers during her nine years on the force.

OCEAN CITY — A former city police officer alleges in a lawsuit she was routinely sexually harassed by male officers during her nine years on the force.

Vanessa Strunk contends that between 2009 and 2018 she was frequently bullied by male officers who spread rumors about her having an affair, stole and displayed her underwear in the police locker room, and insinuated she could not do her job because she was a woman.

City spokesman Doug Bergen said the lawsuit was filed by a “disgruntled former employee.”

“The suit in no way reflects the respect, integrity, dedication and good work of the men and women of the Ocean City Police Department,” Bergen said.

The city denied charges of sexual harassment and workplace retaliation in an answer to the complaint filed last week and contends that Strunk “welcomed and/or participated in the conduct of which he or she now complains.”

“Through the courts, we will determine what it is we agree on and what it is we disagree on,” said John Grady, an attorney representing the city.

Strunk left the department in May. She is represented by attorney Sebastian Ionno, who did not return a request for comment.

“(A) hostile work environment on the basis of gender was perpetrated with the knowledge, approval and direct involvement of upper management personnel within the OCPD,” the 21-page complaint filed in Cape May County Superior Court in September reads.

The harassment began in June 2009, the suit claims, when Officer Matthew Schaffer sent Strunk text messages “demanding that she attend a party with him” and became pushy when she declined.

Another officer told Schaffer he was being inappropriate, and Schaffer allegedly replied, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”

In September 2013, Strunk contends she was again subjected to discrimination when Officer Eugene Sharpe did not allow her to escort a prisoner “in case something happened,” suggesting Strunk could not perform her job based on her gender, according to the suit.

The complaint alleges officers often spoke disparagingly about women on the force, including in 2014 when Schaffer allegedly made lewd comments to Strunk.

Another incident left Strunk feeling “harassed and humiliated” in June 2017, according to the lawsuit, after Lt. Charles Simonson removed Strunk’s underwear from her locker and displayed them in the police locker room.

The lawsuit also states Strunk was accused of being involved in a domestic violence incident in which she allegedly pointed a gun at her husband while intoxicated, which she denied.

Strunk initially feared workplace retaliation if she reported misconduct to management, the suit claims, but she complained to her union representative for the first time in 2015. She contends her supervisor, Simonson, gave her a formal reprimand as retaliation, and that this pattern of reprisal continued until she left the department May 10.

Strunk left following an investigation into her “possibly inappropriate recording of video” from the police surveillance system, which she used to document concerns of another officer violating firearms safety procedures, according to the complaint.

In its response, the city admitted to an incident in October 2017 in which Strunk alleges Simonson gave her a mock performance review stating “Vanessa is a pain in the ass and complains about being a woman every four or five days.” The city said Strunk was aware the evaluation was a joke.

Strunk had been disciplined in the past for using sexually explicit language in public while she was in the police academy and for inappropriate conduct while consuming alcohol, the city said in its answer to the complaint.

Also named in the suit are acting Chief of Internal Affairs John Prettyman and police Chief Chad Callahan.

Contact: 609-272-7258 azoppo@pressofac.com Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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