NewsTeam 10 Investigates


Lawsuit alleges harassment and retaliation in Sheriff’s Department

Poway Station
Posted at 3:05 PM, Sep 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-02 20:24:12-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Two former detectives with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department are suing the county and a former sergeant for harassment.

According to a lawsuit filed this week by Detectives Deborah Stiesmeyer and Stacey Ralph, they faced “incessant sexual harassment and discrimination” by Sgt. Shawn Silva, who is now retired.

The lawsuit says, “Silva regularly and openly made derogatory, offensive, and vulgar comments about Detectives Stiesmeyer and Ralph and told lies about their sex lives, subjected them to unwarranted and invalid criticism, demeaned, degraded, and berated them to make them feel incompetent and worthless, and excessively monitored and micromanaged their every moves. Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Detectives in the Poway Station – all mandated reporters – witnessed and/or received reports of Silva’s brutal harassment and discrimination and did nothing to stop it.”

The lawsuit says Silva subjected Ralph to incessant sexual harassment and discrimination for two years.

The lawsuit says, “prior to Detective Ralph transferring from the Traffic Unit to the Investigations Unit in Poway, Sergeant Silva told several employees that she was a lesbian, though Detective Ralph is not a lesbian and had never discussed her sexual orientation with him. After her arrival, others would joke, ‘remember when Silva thought you were a lesbian,’ and laugh.”

The lawsuit claims Silva made inappropriate comments about Ralph’s sex life. It says, “Sergeant Silva also made inappropriate comments about the sex lives of other employees and their families.”

According to the lawsuit, “Throughout her employment in the Poway Station, Detective Ralph commiserated with the other female employees. They talked about how Sergeant Silva’s comments made them feel angry, degraded, and embarrassed, but that they all feared the anticipated fall out from reporting Silva. Detective Ralph not only feared retaliation if she reported Silva, but she did not want to be seen as ‘weak’ for not being able to put up with Silva, as it was clear everyone else in the Poway Station took that approach instead of calling him out.”

In 2021 Ralph transferred out of the Poway station and Stiesmeyer transferred in, reporting directly to Silva.

According to the lawsuit, “Within just two weeks of Detective Stiesmeyer arriving, Sergeant Silva came to her cubicle, looked at the photos on her walls, and inappropriately asked, ‘Where’s your boyfriend?’ Taken aback by his question, Detective Stiesmeyer quickly responded, ‘I don’t have one,’ to which Silva then inappropriately asked, ‘Well then are you a lesbian?’”

Stiesmeyer says Silva paid an uncomfortable amount of attention to her physical appearance and was obsessed with her relationship status.

According to the lawsuit, “Silva once announced that Detective Stiesmeyer liked to change her uniform shirt in the parking lot if anyone wanted to see her sports bra, which was false as Detective Stiesmeyer always wore a tank top under her work shirt and never exposed her sports bra. Silva even noticed, after a lengthy period of time, that Detective Stiesmeyer had not worn the same shirt twice and commented on that as well. The attention made Detective Stiesmeyer feel like she was under a microscope, and she changed the way she dressed and scrutinized her appearance every morning to try to avoid Silva’s inevitable comments.”

In an interview with ABC 10News, Stiesmeyer said she felt like her passion for her career and future in the department was unjustly taken from her.

“The behavior was just so out of control,” she said. “The abuse of power was palpable. I felt objectified the whole time. I felt like an object.”

Stiesmeyer says that she was scared to report Silva. She was afraid of being seen as the “snitch” or the “weak female” because everyone else in the station tolerated his behavior. She told ABC 10News she was afraid she’d be retaliated against.

The lawsuit says two days after a conversation with a different sergeant, Silva was removed from the Poway station.

According to the lawsuit, “Sergeant Silva was not placed on leave but was instead reassigned from Poway to another location while IA Sergeant John Malan investigated. When Detective Stiesmeyer complained to IA that Silva was now in much closer proximity to her as she lived very close to that location, the Department did nothing. Detective Stiesmeyer felt like a prisoner in her home and was afraid to go out for walks or to run errands for fear of running into Silva. Detective Stiesmeyer also avoided going to Silva’s new location, even when that meant foregoing career advancement opportunities at that location.”

The lawsuit says over the next 10 months, internal affairs interviewed 24 witnesses who, “detailed some, but not all the harassment and discrimination they suffered as there were simply too many incidents for them to fully recount.”

Stiesmeyer said during that time she was retaliated against.

According to the lawsuit, “The hostile, intimidating, offensive, oppressive, and abusive work environment became so unbearable, and her physical, mental, and emotional health so deteriorated, that she could no longer work in such an environment.”

In February 2022, she resigned from the department. A few months later Ralph submitted a resignation letter. The lawsuit says she “was also forced to give up the job she loved and was constructively terminated on May 13, 2022.”

“I took an oath to protect and serve the community and deep in that oath is a very real possibility of taking a bullet or making the ultimate sacrifice of laying my life down to stand between good and evil,” Stiesmeyer said. “It was devastating that the department turned a blind eye and allowed sergeant Silva and his reign of terror to continue for years.”

During the internal affairs investigation, Silva left the Sheriff’s Department. A department spokesperson tells ABC 10News his last day was March 31, 2022.

According to the lawsuit, “Instead of disciplining or terminating Sergeant Silva, the Department followed its pattern and practice and allowed Silva to retire before it reached these sustained findings.”

“They heard from 24 people about this guy’s conduct, all corroborated,” said attorney Alreen Haeggquist. “So, what was the action you needed to take? It was very simple what they needed to do, but they refused to do that.”

In June 2022, the department released a nearly 400-page internal affairs report sustaining multiple findings against sergeant Silva.

Those sustained findings include sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment, and multiple violations of discrimination.

In one section the report stated, “Over the course of several years, Sergeant Silva fostered a culture of control, intimidation, and manipulation. He treated his subordinates with disrespect and targeted individuals to maintain a perceived sense of dictatorial authority.” The report also noted, “Over the course of several years, Sergeant Silva discriminated against pregnant female subordinates in the form of micromanaging, threats of being moved from the station, and painting pregnancy in a negative light. Silva's actions caused pregnant females to experience distress and lack of purpose in the workplace.”

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department says they can’t comment on pending litigation.

In a general statement, a spokesperson said, “The San Diego Sheriff's Department takes pride in providing the highest quality of public safety services to everyone in San Diego County, including our employees. We hold all of our employees to the highest standards and require our staff to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and compassion.”

The department also provided a copy of its sexual harassment policy and said all of its employees are required to attend sexual harassment training.

Attorneys for the women say they were left emotionally shattered. They say the county had a duty to prevent that type of behavior and they didn’t.

“By essentially taking no actions against a male harasser they got off unscathed,” said attorney Jenna Rangel. “They never have to face these allegations against them, they never face discipline, they never get fired, they just get to retire”

ABC 10News tried to get in touch with Silva but couldn’t find contact information for him. We reached out to the law firm that represented him during the internal affairs investigation but did not hear back by our deadline.