Under Fire

A slip of the tongue. The F-bomb. Former Houston Community College police officer Heather Perry says it was a honest mistake, that she didn't mean to curse at the guy behind the counter at the EZ TAG store, but she was frustrated her toll pass wasn't working properly and let it fly.

Unfortunately, though she was not on duty, she was wearing her police uniform at the time, and the employee complained. Quickly, she says, that one little word, that sudden outburst, cost Perry her job and turned her life upside down.

"I was upset," she says, "but I never threatened or hurt anybody. I said it, and I know I shouldn't have, but I didn't deserve to be fired for saying it."

Perry is claiming gender discrimination, alleging HCC Police Chief Gregory Cunningham sacked her because she is a woman. She also says that Cunningham followed through on personal threats to ruin her career and violated the college's termination procedures. She joins a chorus of other officers alleging Cunningham is running the police department into the ground with a host of detrimental practices and policies. This is how she tells it:

About a week or so after blowing up at the EZ TAG clerk, when she said, "What the fuck is going on here?" Perry received a letter from the HCC police department telling her there had been a complaint and that there would be an internal inquiry. Perry talked to the investigator and claims he assured her that cursing was not a fireable offense and that he would be recommending no more than a one- or two-day suspension to the chief. She was to go home and wait for a call telling her to return to duty.

No one called. Then, on October 16, 2009, nearly three weeks after the internal investigation began, Perry received a letter in the mail from Cunningham informing her that she had been fired, effective in a week. Cunningham stated the reason was for violating the department's policy regarding the harassment of civilians. Cunningham also said that Perry's termination form, called an F-5, which is submitted to the state law enforcement licensing board and becomes part of an officer's permanent record, would reflect a general discharge and not a dishonorable one.

Perry thought it was a joke. Never in her wildest dreams did she think her loose lips would cost her her job. A few days later, she decided to call Cunningham.

"When I called," claims Perry, "he tore me a new one. He said, 'Listen, little girl, I'm the god around here and only I have the power of the pen to say what happens. I don't have to listen to anyone else. I can put whatever I want on your F-5. If you fight me, you'll regret it.'"

Scared, Perry went to the college system's Human Resources department to appeal her termination. But no one there had any idea what Perry was talking about. Perry claims the Human Resources office had no record of her termination.

Nearly two weeks later, HR finally sent Perry a termination notice, with an effective date one week past the day Cunningham had originally stated. It took another two weeks for Perry to receive a copy of her F-5 form. Cunningham had checked the box for a dishonorable discharge.

Perry began talking to other HCC police officers, who told her that several cops there, all men, had done a lot worse than curse while off-duty and were not fired. Perry claims she discovered that one officer had been charged with DWI and was not seriously reprimanded; that an officer was accused of stealing time from the school, clocking in but not showing up for duty, and had only been verbally warned; and that another officer was accused of sexual harassment and was transferred first, as a warning, before a second sexual harassment accusation finally got him placed on administrative leave.

It appeared, Perry claims, that Cunningham was giving men a break, while he went right to giving her the boot. Perry took that information, along with her assertion that only 10 percent of the force was made up of women and that none had leadership positions, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There, she told an EEOC representative about the termination letters, how she believed Cunningham had circumvented proper procedures, the threats he made about her F-5 form and the demeaning way he called her "little girl" on the phone. The representative talked to Cunningham, who denied everything.

Perry then took her case to the college system's Board of Trustees, and made arrangements to speak at its next public meeting on December 10. A few days after announcing this decision to college officials in writing, Perry got a letter in the mail from Cunningham about her F-5 form. The chief stated that her previous F-5 had "erroneously reflected" the reason for her termination as a dishonorable discharge, and had been a "clerical error." Cunningham had resubmitted the form to the licensing board, this time giving Perry a general discharge, instead of a dishonorable one, the exact opposite of the first time around.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel