Their underwire bras set off the metal detectors at Jackson County Detention Center. But rather than make accommodations for jail employees who wore that style of undergarment, Sheriff Darryl Forte' refused to find a solution that would allow the women to do their jobs without buying new bras that they found uncomfortable.
His stance has now cost county taxpayers $405,000.
That's how much the county legislature agreed this week to spend settling a pair of sex discrimination lawsuits filed in 2020 by two long-time employees of the Jackson County Detention Center.
The women brought their litigation on the same day a little more than a year after Forte', who oversees the detention center, initiated a new security screening protocol. Beginning May 16, 2019, all those entering the secure areas of the jail had to pass through a metal detector first.
The detectors were brought in to help keep weapons, cellphones and other contraband out of the jail in downtown Kansas City. Previously, jail guards had been prosecuted for sneaking in phones and drugs that they sold to inmates.
Female defense attorneys first called attention to the difficulties the new procedures imposed on women when they were denied entry to see their clients. Some lawyers' bras triggered the walk-through metal detector.
That left them with few choices, none of them good, the attorneys said. They could remove their bras before going through the detector, buy different ones or speak to their clients over the phone, separated by glass.
Forte' and detention center director Diana Turner refused to find a solution that would allow them to wear their bra style of choice and get through the security checkpoint. Wanding them or doing a pat-down search were out, Turner said. So 75 of them protested outside the courthouse, drawing media attention by chanting "We need support!" and carrying signs like "My underwire bra is no threat and neither am I."
Their complaints subsided that June when, for reasons that were never explained, visitors wearing underwire bras were suddenly able to pass through security without setting off alarms.
"It's not that the women have gotten new bras," one attorney said a week after the protest. "After all the hubbub last week, I think they probably adjusted it (the metal detector) without saying they adjusted it."
Later, a secondary screening policy was adopted for attorneys and other visitors who might have contact with inmates.
But female employees of the jail did not get secondary screening, according to the lawsuits. Some continued to set off the machine and were docked pay when they missed a shift because of the bra they wore.
Charlotte Hardin and Linda Hengel sued after their attempts to comply with the screening policy were thwarted. Men they worked with were allowed to take off their belts before passing through the metal detector and then put them back on after they cleared the machine.
So Hardin and Hengel began taking off their bras in the locker room before going though the machine and putting them back on afterward in private.
Humiliating as it was, it worked for awhile. But jail management later declared that undergarments were not allowed in the bins that passed along with belts and other items through an X-ray machine.
"We do not scan an undergarment of any kind for clearance," Hengel was informed in a written notice. "This behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable."
Her lawsuit alleged that the jail administration "instituted the policy to protect male employees from any discomfort in viewing a woman's bra."
Yet she and Hardin said they were the ones who were made uncomfortable and were embarrassed by it all. They overheard male co-workers joking about the bra situation. Both of them were assigned to other duties outside the secure area for repeatedly failing to clear the screening machine.
Hengel, who was inmate services coordinator, retired early because the subsequent jobs she was given aggravated her various medical conditions.
For complaining about what she saw as a discriminatory policy, Hardin contends that she was treated unfairly and denied a pay raise.
On Monday, the legislature voted to pay $255,000 to settle Hardin's claim and $150,000 to settle Hengel's. Attorney Katherine Myers represented both women and will share in those settlements.
Forte' spent nearly an hour discussing other matters Monday before the legislature's Justice and Law Enforcement Committee. During the sometimes testy and wide-ranging discussion, he complained about one previous time he appeared before the body to attend a "fake hearing,"
It was a reference to the time legislators asked him to address concerns about the jail screening process on the day the attorneys gathered in protest on the courthouse steps in 2019.
County legislator Crystal Williams bristled at his remark and informed him that the bra issue led to the lawsuits that were being settled this week.
"That fake hearing," legislator Jalen Anderson said later as the settlements were approved, "was a result of not adhering to several people's requests and will cost taxpayers $405,000."
Laurie Snell was one of the lawyers who first went public about this issue in 2019. She said this week that the screening machines at the jail no longer buzz when women wearing a underwire bras pass through.
"There have been no issues getting in for quite sometime - over two years, almost three at least," she said.