News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Test questions: an activist officer's run-in with the police

by

comment

One day last year Pat Hill missed a day of work because she had a headache. A throbbing migraine, to be exact. That might not upset most employers, but Hill is a Chicago police officer, and the department has some rather rigid rules regarding medical leave. Anyway, one thing led to another, and Hill was eventually suspended for six months for disobeying an order to undergo a psychological examination.

Whether Hill should have been given a psychological exam because she had a headache is the source of some debate. But Police Department officials contend that orders should be obeyed without question.

The matter is made more complicated by the fact that Hill is president of the African-American Police League, a long-standing source of aggravation for police brass. Hill says the department is trying to harass her into quitting--a charge police officials deny.

Hill has appealed her suspension to the Police Board, a citizen board appointed by the mayor that reviews disciplinary matters. "What the department's doing results from the arrogance of power," she says. "They can't tolerate anyone who thinks for themselves."

Hill defies all Chicago-cop stereotypes. She's a 43-year-old mother of three who wears her hair in a short natural and favors African jewelry and hats. A star sprinter at Harlan High, she later taught gym and coached girls' basketball at several public high schools on the north, northwest, and west sides. By the time she joined the force in 1986 she was 35 and not nearly as impressionable as many of her classmates at the academy. "Many of the recruits were ready to believe whatever they were told. The instructors wanted us to be all alike. They wanted us to believe that from now on policemen would be the only people we could trust."

But Hill has an independent mind, and she's not afraid to show it. "I think there's a negative view of me by supervisors based on my hats, my jewelry, and my hair, as well as my politics. I try to be polite and respectful to everyone I meet. But some people feel threatened by a black person who shows ethnic pride." She joined the force, she says, to combat its "history of racism," and she rebels against the notion that a cop should be judged by the number of people he or she arrests. "I'm more the social-worker type. I'm out to resolve things, not to just make arrests."

She has also endorsed the idea of having a day to commemorate Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader killed in a predawn police raid, and castigated the Fraternal Order of Police, the police officers' bargaining unit, for not fighting for an affirmative-action clause in the contract.

Nonetheless, Hill had no major infractions on her record until the summer of 1992, when she missed that day of work because of a headache. "I don't usually have headaches, but this was a stressful time," she says. Her daughter was starting college, a close friend had died, and she'd been switched to a rotating shift, "which means that every 28 days I went from working days to afternoons to midnights. My psychologist, Dr. Theophilus Green, told me I was suffering from an adjustment disorder."

According to departmental policy, an officer who misses at least one day for medical reasons must report to the medical section, which is what Hill did on August 28, bearing a letter from Green explaining that her absence was due to a headache. She was interviewed by staff doctor Darval Carter, who says Hill told him she suffered from anxiety--a contention Hill vehemently denies. Whether she used it or not, the word has multiple meanings. A layman like Hill might use anxiety to define a temporary state of stress. However, a doctor uses it to refer to a very serious condition with almost uncontrollable apprehension and in some cases tremors and palpitations.

Hill says she never had anything that remotely resembled such a condition. Moreover, she points out, Carter never asked if she did. Instead, he quickly directed her to Jay Bransfield, chief surgeon for the Police Department. Bransfield told her that because she'd told Carter she had anxiety she had to undergo a psychological examination.

"I said, 'I never told Carter I had anxiety,'" says Hill. "Bransfield said, 'Yes, you did.' I said, 'No, I didn't.' I don't even use such terminology, and my doctor's letter said nothing about anxiety. Bransfield says, 'Well, you have a letter from a psychologist.' Well, so what? Does everyone who sees a psychologist have anxiety? Not once did Bransfield act like a doctor and ask about my symptoms. He just barked at me about departmental policy and procedure."

After that she was led from one room to another, as different nurses took her blood pressure, listened to her heart, drew her blood, and tested her urine for drugs. Finally an officer from personnel took away her badge. "He said he had to do it because I was going to have a full psychological evaluation. I couldn't believe it. It was like a bad dream."

She was ordered to schedule an appointment at Stanard & Associates, a consulting firm the department pays to give psychological exams to police officers. She was told that the firm would give her something called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a written test that supposedly would determine if she was psychologically fit to continue her job.

"When I told Dr. Green he said, 'Don't take the MMPI.' He said studies have shown that test is skewed against black people. I could wind up with a finding that has nothing to do with who I really am, but gets dumped in my file and used against me."

Later Bransfield said he'd ordered Hill to take the MMPI to protect the public safety. "Police officers have to be held to higher standards because they carry [guns]," he said. "Anything that might impinge on their emotional judgment has to be examined."

On September 4 Hill reported to Stanard. "The first thing they did was take my picture. When I asked why, they said, 'The doctor sees so many people he needs the pictures to keep track of them.' How's that for personal service? I told them my doctor had instructed me not to take the MMPI. I was taken to see a doctor, who was very rude, and he says, 'What's this? You're not taking the test? You can leave.' That was it--no examination, no questions, no attempt to help me."

For the next several months Hill was summoned to Bransfield's office every two weeks and asked whether she would take the MMPI. "I refused. How can they make me take a test that my doctor tells me not to take? They're asking me to do something that would have a detrimental consequence to me. A police officer has to be allowed some discretion. We're not soldiers in the fuhrer's army. If they order me to jump out of the window, I should have the discretion to say no."

Eventually Hill was examined by another psychologist, who reported that she did not suffer from anxiety. With Green's approval, she went to Stanard in January and took the MMPI. "She implored me to let her take it," Green testified at a Police Board hearing last week. "I said 'Things have changed for you. You're no longer experiencing stress.' It was an adjustment disorder, and she had adjusted."

For what it's worth, she "passed" the test. "It was 600 questions like 'Do you hate your mother?' or 'Have you ever smoked marijuana?' or 'Do you hear voices?' Some of it was an invasion of privacy, and some of it was misleading--since it's yes or no and you don't get to explain your answers."

That same month Hill returned to work. But on July 22 police superintendent Matt Rodriguez suspended her without pay for six months for disobeying the first order to take the test.

Ultimately the Police Board will read a transcript of last week's hearing and decide whether to uphold her suspension or to overrule it and award Hill back pay. If the case were before a jury, she'd probably have the upper hand, given the performance of her lawyer at the hearing. Joe Roddy--who, ironically, has represented many white policemen in brutality cases involving black suspects--was a passionate and forceful advocate for her. He paced the floor, relentlessly hammering at opposing witnesses to make them look like petty factotums working in a malicious bureaucracy.

In contrast, the Police Department's lawyers stonily repeated the same line: an order was given, and Hill should have followed it. "When you clear all the smoke that officer Hill has used to cloud the issue, what we have is Dr. Green's opinion that he disagrees as to the test and testing procedures," said Angela Thomas in her closing remarks. "We believe that Dr. Green's opinions are ultimately irrelevant."

Should the board rule against Hill--its decision won't be known for at least several weeks--she says she'll take the matter to court. "This isn't over," she says. "I'm not going to let them get away with this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment