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This Philadelphia police inspector was accused of sexual harassment. Now he heads the SVU.

The Police Department put Inspector Anthony Washington in charge of the Special Victims Unit, despite past sexual-harassment complaints. Advocates for rape victims are dismayed, but Washington’s supporters say his past isn’t problematic.

Philadelphia Police Inspector Anthony Washington was assigned new duties in December, including oversight of the Special Victims Unit, Homicide and Major Crimes.
Philadelphia Police Inspector Anthony Washington was assigned new duties in December, including oversight of the Special Victims Unit, Homicide and Major Crimes.Read moreIllustration by Cynthia Greer, photo by Michael Bryant / Staff

In early December, a raft of promotions and transfers went into effect across the Philadelphia Police Department.

Among the changes was a new supervisory position that gave one commander — Inspector Anthony Washington — oversight of the Special Victims Unit, as well as Homicide, Major Crimes, and other key units.

The assignment could have been seen as an apex of sorts for Washington’s 30-year career. But to some observers inside and outside the department, his affiliation with SVU appeared problematic.

Washington has been accused in the past of sexually harassing at least four female police officers, as well as a former Temple University student who once tried to interview him for a school project, and retaliating in some instances against cops who spoke out about his alleged behavior.

Last fall, before Washington moved into his new position, a female police sergeant included him in an amended complaint she filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). According to the city’s Law Department, she alleged that Washington retaliated against her for contacting the agency about a male lieutenant, Richard Frank, who had discriminated against female officers in her district. The case is pending.

Two other female police officers also named Washington in PHRC complaints that they filed last year about Frank, whom the women accused of sexually harassing them. Washington was not accused of any harassment in those complaints, but was one of Frank’s bosses.

Between 2011 and 2014, the city spent $198,000 to settle five lawsuits that were filed against Washington over allegations that included workplace harassment, civil rights violations, and physical abuse. (The city says that settlement agreements are not an admission of wrongdoing.)

The older complaints against Washington were first detailed by the Daily News in 2012 — long before the advent of the #MeToo movement — as part of a series on police commanders who had been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct but continued to receive promotions, which female officers contended was a symptom of a larger culture that protected harassers and ostracized victims.

City officials argue that those allegations should have no bearing on Washington’s current role. The claims are old, they say, and none were sustained by investigators in the department’s Internal Affairs Division.

“Inspector Washington is an experienced and proficient commander, with extraordinary leadership skills,” Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in a statement to The Inquirer. “I am wholly confident in his ability to command the Homicide/Special Investigations Division.”

Ross said Washington isn’t personally involved in SVU investigations, and works at the department’s headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets, not the office complex on Hunting Park Avenue that houses SVU and other city agencies.

Washington declined to be interviewed; the Police Department’s press office explained in an email that he “is immersed in performing his core duties.”

Advocates who work closely with the department on behalf of sexual-assault victims expressed concern that Washington has authority over the SVU.

“Being the only rape crisis center in Philadelphia, I would tell you that I was unaware of this reassignment for Anthony Washington,” said Monique Howard, the executive director of Women Organized Against Rape. “And it’s troubling that a person that has sexual-harassment allegations against him would have oversight of the Special Victims Unit.”

A history of complaints

Washington’s journey through the Police Department began in 1989, when he graduated from the police academy and was assigned to West Philadelphia’s 19th District.

By 2006, Washington was a lieutenant, working in Nicetown’s 39th District. It was there that Wendy Ducksworth, an Army veteran then in her late 30s, met Washington in a roll-call room as part of an assignment she was doing for a class at Temple.

Ducksworth, a customer accounts specialist for the Department of Defense, recalled being startled when her conversation with Washington turned sexual, as he allegedly ogled her body and asked her to describe the sexiest thing she’d ever done.

“I’m sorry for staring, but you look good," Ducksworth said Washington told her. "You’re my type. You’re the size I like.”

The exchange, she once said, left her feeling like a “piece of meat at a carnival.”

She lodged a complaint against Washington with Internal Affairs, but it was not sustained.

“I was shocked because you don’t expect a professional public servant to act like that,” Ducksworth, now 50, said during a recent interview. “If he’s ignorant, it gives his subordinates a license to be ignorant, rude, and obnoxious.”

At least 13 other civilians have also filed complaints against Washington in the past, but Internal Affairs didn’t sustain any of them, either.

That process has its critics. “For years, there’s been a systemic problem with the internal disciplinary mechanism in the Philadelphia Police Department,” said Philadelphia civil rights attorney Paul Messing.

He hasn’t see recent data to determine if the department has made improvements but said: “There’s a history of inadequate investigations, and a failure to impose meaningful disciplinary and remedial action.”

Four police officers — two women and two men — separately filed federal lawsuits against Washington between 2005 and 2012, resulting in combined settlements of $83,000.

One of the female officers, Tonya Milligan, said that she worked for Washington in Southwest Philadelphia’s 12th District, where he served as the captain.

Milligan said that Washington would call her into his office and pepper her with questions about her personal life, and once asked if she knew how to be submissive. She said that she objected, and Washington allegedly retaliated by repeatedly changing her shift.

“When this happened, it changed my view of the department,” Milligan said at the time. “We were sworn to protect and serve the public, but there was no one to protect us.”

Sgt. John Massi also said he faced retaliation — a 15-day suspension and an assignment on a dreaded overnight shift — for complaining about Washington’s conduct while both men worked in South Philadelphia’s 17th District.

Massi once described watching Washington stare at two female officers in the district’s headquarters: “They had their backs to him, and he’s leaning against a wall, rubbing his penis with his right hand, with his left hand over his mouth, while saying, ‘Mmm, wow, mmm.’ ”

The city paid $8,000 to settle Massi’s retaliation lawsuit in 2014.

Police officers aren’t the only ones who have taken the city to court over Washington’s alleged conduct. In 2011, a South Philadelphia man named Raheem Holman sued Washington and Officer Shawn Hagan in Common Pleas Court.

Holman said that he and his friend walked out of a corner store near 21st and McKean Streets and were stopped and frisked by Washington and Hagan without explanation.

The encounter turned contentious, and Holman alleged that Washington said, “Put that n----- on his knees,” and then split Holman’s head open with a baton, and continued beating him after he fell to the ground. The attack was interrupted by Holman’s mother, who, according to court records, yelled, “Stop beating my son, stop beating my son!”

Holman needed 11 staples to close his head wound — and then learned that he had been charged with aggravated assault and making terroristic threats. He was later found not guilty, and the city settled Holman’s lawsuit in 2013 for $95,000.

Michael Schwartz, Holman’s attorney, said Washington’s continued rise in the face of serious allegations “is emblematic of the overall problem of having the police police their own."

Then-Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey indicated that he had no choice but to promote Washington to inspector, given the civil service and union rules that govern how promotions are managed in the Police Department.

At that time, Ramsey explained that Washington had done well on a departmental exam, and two additional internal complaints against him hadn’t been sustained. “There’s nothing against him now,” Ramsey said, “so there is no reason not to promote him.”

A year later, the city settled a federal civil rights lawsuit from five men who alleged they had been handcuffed and unlawfully detained by officers in South Philadelphia, allegedly at Washington’s direction, and forced to sit through a presentation from Mothers-in-Charge, the local antiviolence nonprofit.

The men received $20,000.

A ‘positive force’?

During the last seven years — a period that has seen a dramatic reevaluation of how workplace harassment is perceived and dealt with across government, entertainment, media, and other industries — the Police Department has adopted several measures that officials say were meant to weed out discrimination and sexual harassment.

Equal Employment Opportunity complaints can now be filed confidentially and electronically, and investigators are required to contact complainants within 72 hours. Recruits who graduate from the police academy and officers who receive promotions are all supposed to undergo harassment and discrimination training approved by the city.

Washington, meanwhile, has been a model employee since his 2012 promotion, according to city officials.

“Since that time, he has commanded South and Northwest Police Divisions, where he was routinely lauded for his managerial acumen, work ethic, and commitment to community service,” Ross said.

While he was in charge of the Northwest Division, Washington was credited with coming up with an idea for movie nights that were held at district headquarters to help police officers bond with local children and their families.

“In my view, he’s been a very positive force in the community,” said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.). “He was always very responsive, and he worked with us in terms of a program that we had [in that area] about anti-bullying.”

Evans said he was unaware of any harassment allegations against Washington.

When Washington oversaw the South Division, though, he became entangled in a federal lawsuit that wound up costing the city dearly.

In 2016, a detective named Michele Vandegrift sued the city over abuse that she said she endured throughout her 12-year career.

Vandegrift, the daughter of a Philadelphia police officer, said male officers routinely subjected her to sexually explicit dialogue and comments about her body, with one officer even exposing himself to her in a patrol car. Even worse, Vandegrift alleged that Chief Inspector Carl Holmes sexually assaulted her in his office in 2007.

Holmes denied the allegation, and was never charged with a crime. Another female officer accused him of sexual assault in 2008, and he was briefly demoted.

In 2014, Vandegrift filed an EEO complaint with the Police Department over harassment she said she faced from male detectives in South Detectives. According to court records, Vandegrift’s boss, Capt. Martin Derbyshire, informed Washington about the situation, and Washington responded by transferring her to an even busier detective division, which Vandegrift perceived as punishment.

Vandegrift said Derbyshire told her the transfer was for her protection, since he couldn’t remove all the detectives harassing her.

One Internal Affairs investigator deposed as part of the lawsuit was asked if he was concerned that Washington might have been biased in deciding how to address Vandegrift’s complaints, given his history.

“I have no idea,” the investigator said.

The city settled Vandegrift’s lawsuit in 2017 for $1.2 million. She no longer works for the Police Department.

Reprimanded for speaking out?

In September 2018, while Washington was still in charge of the Northwest Division, Sgt. Christina Mellett filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint with the state Human Relations Commission.

According to three sources familiar with the complaint, Mellett and Sgt. Eric Rieser had raised concerns a year earlier, in the summer of 2017, about Lt. Richard Frank, alleging that he’d made offensive sexual remarks to female officers in Germantown’s 14th District.

Mellett and Rieser informed their boss, Capt. John Hearn, about Frank’s conduct; based on police protocol, Hearn was required to forward the information to Washington, his immediate superior. (Hearn, who is now the chief of police in Newtown Township, Bucks County, did not respond to an interview request.)

Frank was transferred to the 35th District in Olney, where his problems allegedly continued. Two additional female police officers filed complaints last May with the state Human Relations Commission over harassment they say Frank subjected them to; Washington, as an inspector, was above Frank in the chain of command.

One law enforcement source said that Frank was informed that he was going to be demoted because of his behavior, but he retired instead on Nov. 7.

Reached by phone, Frank said: “I want nothing to do with this story.”

Mellett, meanwhile, was called before the Police Board of Inquiry for a disciplinary hearing at Police Headquarters on Wednesday. She was reprimanded, sources say, for not following proper protocols when she blew the whistle on Frank’s alleged harassment.

Mellett declined to comment, as did her attorneys, Steve Console and Emily Derstine Friesen. Derstine Friesen attempted to attend Mellet’s PBI hearing but was told by a police official she wasn’t allowed, and was instead left to stand in a hallway near the lobby at Police Headquarters.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 declined to comment on Mellett’s case, or on any questions related to Washington.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson, Deana Gamble, said in a statement to The Inquirer that Kenney takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously, and “is confident in the internal reforms and improvements implemented by the police department over the last three years, which aim to create a diverse and inclusive workplace free of discrimination and harassment."

“The allegations against Inspector Washington were investigated, as is the case for all claims of misconduct within the government. Regarding the inspector’s recent transfer, the mayor trusts the police commissioner to make personnel decisions that are in the best interest of the department.”

Last year, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart audited the city’s sexual-harassment policies and described them as “opaque and complicated,” creating environments in many departments that stifle sexual-harassment reporting.

Rhynhart found that the city had shelled out $2.2 million to settle harassment complaints between 2012 and 2018 but believes the actual total is higher; her investigators determined the Law Department’s internal systems don’t track all sexual-harassment cases.

“These kinds of settlements should all be public,” said Carol Tracy, the executive director of the Women’s Law Project, which works closely with the Special Victims Unit.

Some police officials have in the past defended the seeming lack of consequences for officers who are accused of sexual harassment, depicting the issue as difficult to resolve — just one person’s claims against another’s.

Tracy scoffed at that notion. “There’s no such thing as ‘he-said, she-said.’ That’s what investigations are for.”