Kentucky State Police captain passed over for promotions because she had kids, lawsuit says

A Kentucky State Police captain and mother was passed over for multiple promotions because higher-ups didn’t want to take her away from her family, a discrimination lawsuit filed against the agency alleged.

Capt. Jennifer Sandlin, the commander at KSP Post 13 in Hazard and the highest-ranking woman in the agency, filed the complaint in August in Franklin District Court.

In 2017, Sandlin became the Hazard post’s first-ever female commander and prior to that spent much of her career at Post 9 in Pikeville.

A year after becoming the commander at Post 13, Sandlin sought two different open positions at the rank of major — which are appointed by KSP’s commissioner — but men were selected to fill each of the positions, the lawsuit stated. Last July, Sandlin sought another position at the rank of major, but again a man was selected to fill the job.

The selection of men instead of Sandlin “established a pattern of discrimination on the basis of sex,” the lawsuit stated.

In a responding court filing, KSP denied Sandlin’s allegations of discrimination and asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

“KSP does not discriminate based on gender, age, race, sex or religion and follows the promotion guidelines set by the agency’s policies and procedures,” Capt. Paul Blanton, the agency’s spokesperson said in a statement. “Due to pending litigation, KSP cannot comment further.”

Thomas Clay, the attorney representing Sandlin, said there is further evidence that the agency’s work environment is hostile to women.

“These other items, to me, indicate that there’s a culture within KSP of discriminating against women,” Clay told the Herald-Leader.

Within the KSP, only five women have ever risen above the rank of captain, Clay said. The agency was first established in 1948 and KSP’s first female trooper graduated from the academy in 1978.

In a recent filing responding to discovery requests from KSP’s attorneys, Sandlin shared texts and emails between agency staff as well as a handwritten journal which describes “different events that have occurred during my career with KSP that demonstrate how I have been discriminated against because I am a female,” Sandlin wrote in the filing, which was provided to the Herald-Leader.

Sandlin graduated from the KSP Academy in 2003 and has raised two children during her career. When Sandlin graduated, her password to an internal KSP website was “brEast6ed,” she wrote in the journal.

While pregnant with her first child in 2005, Sandlin was told by her commander that she had to bring in verification of the pregnancy. When she asked why she had to bring in verification, Sandlin was told that “verification was required because some women may fake a pregnancy to get off the road and then just say they miscarried,” she wrote.

Seeking promotion to major

In the summer of 2018, two different positions at the rank of major became vacant and Sandlin expressed interest in both. Richard Sanders, the KSP commissioner at the time, appointed men to both positions. Sanders told Sandlin that he didn’t select her because “he didn’t want to take me away from my family,” Sandlin wrote in the filing.

Sanders wrote in a separate court filling that he never turned down Sandlin for either position and that instead Sandlin had declined both positions because she didn’t want to move her family and “was ok with staying her home Post.”

The position of Chief Information Officer, another major position, became vacant in July 2022 and Sandlin met with Phillip Burnett, Jr., the current KSP commissioner, at a Cracker Barrel in London to discuss the job.

Burnett told Sandlin that the position would require a lot of “seat time” in Frankfort, she wrote in the journal. Sandlin and her husband, who previously worked for KSP but has retired, had purchased land on Lake Cumberland in Wayne County and were wanting to build a house there and move. A job in Frankfort would help facilitate the move, Sandlin wrote, and added that she would be willing to stay at the agency’s Frankfort headquarters three nights a week to cut back on commuting.

Kentucky State Police Commissioner Col. Philip Burnett Jr. speaks about operation United Front that targeted human trafficking that resulted in the rescue of 21 victims and the arrest of 41 individuals during a press conference at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, September 1, 2021.
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Col. Philip Burnett Jr. speaks about operation United Front that targeted human trafficking that resulted in the rescue of 21 victims and the arrest of 41 individuals during a press conference at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, September 1, 2021.

Burnett told Sandlin that she should speak with her husband about it, she wrote in the journal. Sandlin said she’d already spoken with her husband about the job but Burnett “again requested that I go home, talk to my husband, and then let him know if I would take the position if it was offered.” Sandlin later texted Burnett that she’d talked with her husband and would take the position if offered.

A few days later, Burnett informed Sandlin that Capt. Jeremy Hamm had been chosen to fill the position, noting that Hamm had had experience with body-worn cameras that Sandlin didn’t and would be able to spend the time necessary in Frankfort.

The position would be responsible for the agency’s largest capital projects — one dealing with radios and another dealing with body cameras — and Hamm had prior experience with overseeing financial grants management and state government purchasing projects, stated a court document filed by KSP’s attorneys that sought to explain why Hamm had been chosen.

In the journal, Sandlin disputed Hamm’s experience with body-worn cameras. On Aug. 5, a few days after Hamm took over the position, Sandlin wrote that he’d told her he’d been allowed to work remotely that day.

Further allegations of discrimination

Around the same time, KSP was seeking troopers from around the state to volunteer to come to the Eastern Kentucky counties that had been most affected by deadly flooding in late July. Sandlin’s Post 13 covers all of the counties which took the brunt of the damage and Sandlin wrote in the journal that she’d worked two straight weeks in response.

Volunteer troopers were to be sent into the flooded areas in two separate weeklong phases. An email, included in the filing and which Clay said was sent to all troopers, stated that female troopers would only be allowed to participate in the second phase.

As part of the discovery process, Sandlin’s attorneys requested that KSP admit that female troopers were “not eligible” to work the first phase of flood relief. KSP objected to the request and deemed it irrelevant.

Clay said that lodging requirements for KSP events are different for male and female troopers. He referenced emails between Sandlin and KSP staff noting that female troopers attending the annual Kentucky Women’s Law Enforcement Network Conference in November were required to share rooms. While at that conference, Sandlin was given the lifetime achievement award.

In court documents, KSP objected to a request that they admit that the lodging requirements for male and female troopers are different. They also declined to provide documents showing travel requests made by KSP command staff.