Philadelphia police officers

Part of a massive police presence during a shooting in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia on Aug. 14. — AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned last Tuesday, a day after a woman in the department claimed in a lawsuit that he allegedly ignored her claim of another officer’s sexual harassment.

Whether the officer’s claim against Ross is true or not remains unknown. But what appears to be clear is that the Philadelphia Police Department has a serious problem with sexual harassment that needs to be addressed by Mayor Jim Kenney and the next police commissioner.

Two female police officers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit that led Ross to resign. They have received promises from the city they won’t be retaliated against or endure more transfers while the case plays out.

Cpl. Audra McCowan and patrol officer Jennifer Allen say their complaints of being physically and verbally harassed by supervisors and colleagues were ignored for years by the department’s top leadership. McCowan accuses Ross of failing to help because she had broken off a romantic relationship with him in 2011. Ross denied any retaliation.

In the lawsuit filed last week, the women say that since raising gender- and race-based complaints, they’ve been assigned rotating shift work, given undesirable jobs, harassed over efforts to pump breast milk and suffered stress-related medical problems.

A court hearing set for last Wednesday to address their concerns was canceled when the city agreed to stop the transfers. At the moment, both officers are out on medical leave.

Kenney said a sexual harassment prevention policy and efforts to prevent workplace discrimination and harassment were implemented a year ago, but said the department has not yet “taken the necessary actions to address the underlying cultural issues that too often negatively impact women — especially women of color.”

He named a deputy commissioner, Christine Coulter, to lead the department on a temporary basis. Coulter, the first woman to serve in the role, is also a defendant in the harassment lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges discrimination, a hostile work environment, retaliation and other counts. It says the women “have suffered continuous and ongoing sexual harassment and discrimination by both co-workers and supervisors,” including groping, sexual comments and sexual advances, and that they faced retaliation for complaining about it.

The lawsuit appears to highlight a problem of sexual harassment within the city’s police department. The problem appears to have been ignored for so long that it is embedded in the department’s culture. Complaints have often been ignored or marginalized and sexual harassers often go unpunished.

According to a report by WHYY, “nine female officers have sued the Philadelphia Police Department over sexual harassment or discrimination since the start of 2018 — that’s roughly one lawsuit every other month, court records show.”

Former Philadelphia police officer Christa Hayburn told WHYY that “sexism is baked into the very marrow of the department.”

“It’s been infused since the day the department was founded,” Hayburn said. “Toxic masculinity. Power … It’s a man’s job, it’s generational.”

In addition to the toll on individual female police officers and their families, settlements for sexual harassment have cost taxpayers millions over the last decade.

“A WHYY analysis of court filings and complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that, since 2007, the city has settled at least three dozen federal lawsuits with female police officers who allegedly suffered some form of sexual, racial or gender-based misconduct on the job.

“Between 2007 and 2019, that amounted to more than $2.3 million in taxpayer-funded payouts — about a quarter of all the employment-related settlements, according to city records.

“Although female officers account for just 27% of the city’s police force, more than half of all legal settlements paid by the department during this time went to female plaintiffs. Three-quarters of those cases alleged sexual harassment or racial discrimination similar to that described in the suit against Ross.”

Civil rights attorney Stanley B. Cheikin, an employment lawyer who has handled multiple sexual harassment claims filed by city police, said many are reluctant to report on their fellow officers, let alone come forward as a witness to harassment.

“Police work is a field that makes it a little more likely that women will be subject to harassment and that it will not be dealt with,” he said. “Police officers will say there’s the code of silence, and that officers that report are considered rats.”

Too often top police officials implicated in civil rights cases remain on the force, regardless of the outcome of the case.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found that the city’s process to “receive, investigate and resolve complaints was too decentralized to effectively protect and support employees.” The city’s process for resolving complaints should be changed immediately.

The city needs to make public its accountability checks and ensure adherence to the mayor’s executive order last year requiring all employees and supervisors receive training, and improve how investigations are conducted. The executive order includes a requirement for annual reviews.

Sexual harassment decreases productivity and impacts the health of the work environment. In a city where police officers must often work long hours in a dangerous and difficult job, the city cannot tolerate sexual harassment, which lowers the morale of a significant number of the city’s 6,500 members and jeopardizes public safety.

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