Pennsylvania Record

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Ross resigns amid allegations he didn't address harassment, discrimination against female officers

Federal Court

By Nicholas Malfitano | Aug 27, 2019


Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross | Chicago Sun-Times

PHILADELPHIA – A lawsuit brought by two female officers alleging a near decade-long pattern of harassment and discrimination against them from inside the Philadelphia Police Department has led to the resignation of Police Commissioner Richard Ross.

An amended lawsuit filed Aug. 19 by Cpl. Audra McCowan and Officer Jennifer Allen in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania accuses Ross of failing to act on numerous charges of harassment and discrimination the plaintiffs were facing from fellow officers.

In the litigation, first filed in July, McCowan, an African-American, and Allen, of African-American/Hispanic heritage, both claim to have been the targets of sexual harassment and discrimination for years. In that time, they say they were the subjects of crude remarks, harassing telephone calls at home, unwanted attention from male officers and groping, including on one occasion in a prayer gathering.

Allen, who recently became a mother, added that she was harassed for pumping breast milk during work hours and was also the recipient of lewd humor when she reported an incident of her milk bottle being tampered with in an office refrigerator.

McCowan said she approached Ross in February about an incident of sexual harassment from a male colleague against her, and that Ross rebuffed her claims.

In response to McCowan’s account, Ross is said to have replied, “So why don’t you just order his dumb a– to go sit down and get out of your face, Officer.”

In the suit, McCowan alleges Ross stated he did not act on the harassment complaint as a form of retribution against her for the plaintiff's breaking off an alleged, two-year-long affair between the two, spanning 2009 to 2011.

Ross resigned on Aug. 20, ending a 30-year career in the Philadelphia Police Department that saw him serve in a number of capacities before his tenure as Police Commissioner began in January 2016, including in patrol, special operations, detective bureau, homicide, and internal affairs.

“I am disappointed, because he’s been a terrific asset to the Police Department and the City as a whole,” Mayor Jim Kenney stated.

But in reaction to the lawsuit and its claims, Kenney felt it was right for Ross to go.

“New allegations of sexual harassment as well as gender and racial discrimination among the rank and file have recently been brought to my attention. While those allegations do not accuse Commissioner Ross of harassment, I do ultimately believe his resignation is in the best interest of the Department,” Kenney added.

Kenney went on to say that despite Ross’ exit, new leadership would “help us continue to reform the Department and show that racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination simply will not be tolerated.”

On Aug. 15, just five days prior to Ross’s resignation, Kenney labeled him “the best Police Commissioner in America” after he led the Department through an hours-long standoff with a barricaded suspect in North Philadelphia, 36 year-old Maurice Hill, who shot and wounded six officers.

At a press conference held outside police headquarters on Aug. 20, Ross explained that his resignation came after a discussion with Kenney and to prevent his involvement in the lawsuit from becoming a “distraction” for both the City and the Department.

Ross declined to comment specifically on the litigation, but stated the allegations leveled against him were not “my spirit.”

“In 55 years of life and 30 years of law enforcement, God and everybody else who knows me knows I have never targeted a person, I have never sought retribution on a person, personally or professionally. And so, I take serious umbrage with that part of this issue, as well as others,” Ross said.

“All I’m able to say right now is that my Lord and Savior knows what happened and what didn’t happen. This legal case will bear out some of those facts in the weeks to come, but I’m not able to discuss them at this point in time.”

Ross also expressed support for acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter, chosen by Kenney to fill the post while the search for a successor begins.

“You will be under good leadership under Commissioner Coulter now. I have known her for at least a quarter-century. I hope that the City will give her a chance to do what is arguably one of the most difficult jobs in City government, that is being a Police Commissioner,” Ross said.

In addition to the City of Philadelphia and now-former Police Commissioner Ross, acting Police Commissioner Coulter, Chief Inspector Daniel MacDonald, Lt. Timothy McHugh, Inspector Michael McCarrick, Sgt. Brent Conway, Sgt. Eric Williford, Sgt. Kevin O’Brien, Sgt. Tamika Allen, Sgt. Herbert Gibbons and Officer Curtis Younger are all named as defendants in the lawsuit.

A federal court hearing which McCowan and Allen were expected to attend on Aug. 21 was called off by U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Joel Slomsky.

The complaint covers 18 counts against the defendants, including: Disparate treatment, hostile work environment and retaliation under Title VII, violation of protections for nursing mothers and retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act, interference and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act, disparate treatment, hostile work environment and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, disparate treatment, hostile work environment and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, retaliation under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, declaratory relief allegations and injunctive relief allegations.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages of an unknown dollar figure, including: Litigation costs, compensatory damages, reasonable attorney’s fees, pre- and post-judgment interest, a declaration that the City’s conduct as set forth herein is in violation of Title VII, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, equitable and general relief, punitive damages, liquidated damages, reinstatement of fringe benefits and seniority, promotion and in injunction preventing further commission of the defendants’ alleged acts, in addition to a trial by jury.

The plaintiffs are represented by Ian M. Bryson of Derek Smith Law Group, in Philadelphia.

The defendants are represented by Daniel R. Unterberger and Erica Kane of the City of Philadelphia Law Department, plus Lauri A. Kavulich of Clark Hill, also all in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:19-cv-03326

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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