“So why don’t you just order his dumb ass to go sit down and get out of your face, officer?”

That is how, according to a lawsuit, ex-Police Commissioner Richard Ross responded when Cpl. Audra McCowan informed him that her sexual-harassment complaints had fallen on deaf ears. McCowan and Ross, allegedly, had a two-year affair, which made Ross’ response all the more troubling.

But the fact that Ross had any response at all underscores the bigger issue: the ability of internal departmental politics to influence the outcome of sexual-harassment investigations.

After complaining to Internal Affairs, McCowan was moved to a lesser job where she was forced to sit for eight hours every day, without any assignment. To avoid this kind of retaliation, last year, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart warned the city about allowing departments to handle sexual-harassment complaints internally.

Rhynhart’s office published an audit of the city’s handling of sexual-harassment complaints — and the $2.2 million that the city spent to settle sexual-harassment cases since 2012. ($1.25 million was ascribed to a single Police Department claim.) Rhynhart concluded the report with a recommendation that the city create a centralized unit to handle all sexual-harassment complaints, from beginning to end.

The audit identified inconsistencies across departments in how sexual-harassment claims are handled. Further, it pointed out that investigating complaints internally creates an opening for conflict of interest. For example, after a sexual-harassment claim against outgoing Sheriff Jewell Williams was substantiated, as the head of his own department, Williams was the one expected to take “appropriate measures.”

Williams’ case is both the most egregious example of conflict of interest with a case, but also the most easy to identify. Ross, being previously involved with the accuser, is a more subtle — but equally problematic — form of conflict.

In response to the audit last year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order that outlined a citywide sexual-harassment policy and beefed-up training. As part of the policy, the city also assigned the Employment Resource Unit as the clearinghouse for all sexual-harassment complaints. And while the ERU is supposed to monitor all complaints, it only investigates “sensitive” cases — and often kicks investigations back to the department where the complaint originated.

That is not the centralized unit that Rhynhart recommended — and it does not address the possibility of intimidation and retribution that exists in the Police Department and other city departments.

Over the last week, instead of recognizing Ross’ bad behavior, Kenney lamented his firing and seemed keen to defend Ross’ reputation. But by dismissing Cpl. McCowan’s allegations, and by not addressing a culture of sexual harassment in the Police Department, Rosscreated a crisis of leadership in the Philadelphia Police Department.

When asked about the importance of diversity in filling the role of commissioner, Kenney responded that he has concerns about the need to maintain the “optics of diversity.” The term optics suggests that the only concern is how things look — not how things run. Like diversity in leadership, a safe workplace for women should not be merely an optic — it should be a fact.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 25

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