After Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned this week amid allegations he didn’t properly respond to sexual harassment complaints, some are wondering if the situation could have been avoided had the city been more aggressive in implementing policy changes recommended over a year ago.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, whose office released an audit in July 2018 showing the city paid more than $2 million over six years to settle sexual harassment lawsuits, said Thursday the city has made progress over the last year in updating its sexual harassment policies and procedures, but it hasn’t gone far enough.

Specifically, she said, one of her office’s main recommendations was that City Hall establish a centralized unit to field, investigate, and adjudicate all claims of sexual harassment across city government, including the police. That hasn’t happened.

Most departments have human resources officials who handle sexual harassment complaints. For the Police Department, the Internal Affairs unit handles those allegations.

“If you had centralization, then it would have been out of the department so much earlier,” Rhynhart said of the complaints. “In fact, the victim would have reached out directly to the centralized unit.”

Managing Director Brian Abernathy defended the Kenney administration’s sexual harassment policies, saying during a Wednesday news conference: “We take this issue just as seriously as the city controller does.”

The administration says it has a clearinghouse that handles sexual harassment complaints: the Employee Relations Unit, which oversees investigations of employee misconduct in all departments. Half the time, ERU investigators handle the claim entirely. The other half of cases are handled by designated officials within each department, according to Monica Marchetti-Brock, director of the Office of Labor Relations, which oversees the ERU.

She said this structure works well for victims of sexual harassment, who can report either to the ERU or to officials within their own department with whom they may feel more comfortable.

Mayor Jim Kenney, left, Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter, center, and Managing Director Brian Abernathy, right, walk toward the Mayor's Reception room for a press conference regarding the resignation of Police Commissioner Richard Ross at Philadelphia City Hall.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Mayor Jim Kenney, left, Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter, center, and Managing Director Brian Abernathy, right, walk toward the Mayor's Reception room for a press conference regarding the resignation of Police Commissioner Richard Ross at Philadelphia City Hall.

But Rhynhart said housing sexual harassment investigations within individual departments means there’s no uniform treatment of complaints, which allows for favoritism and bias, especially if the designated investigator knows the parties involved in the complaint.

Officially, supervisors across the government are required to forward a complaint when an employee reports sexual harassment, said Marchetti-Brock. Supervisors can file an online complaint, contact the ERU, or get in touch with the department’s human resources officials.

“If a subordinate comes to a supervisor, the supervisor has to report it," Marchetti-Brock said, adding that supervisors are "responsible for maintaining an environment that is free from harassment.”

That didn’t happen in the case that led to Ross’ resignation, according to Police Cpl. Audra McCowan and Patrol Officer Jennifer Allen, who filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and a lawsuit alleging their complaints were ignored.

McCowan and Allen’s lawsuit details years of alleged sexual harassment at the hands of male colleagues, including being the targets of sexualized jokes and getting hit on and groped. The women, who claim they were also passed over for promotions, said they notified multiple supervisors of the harassment, along with filing a formal complaint.

Ross ignored McCowan’s complaints about being sexually harassed by another officer as retribution, she said, saying she broke off a two-year affair with Ross in 2011. Ross denied seeking retribution.

According to the lawsuit, Internal Affairs investigated a complaint filed by the women earlier this year. McCowan claimed an Internal Affairs sergeant who interviewed her said the Police Department “has the highest payouts in lawsuits out of all the city agencies, so these interview questions are worded to assist the city in defending against a lawsuit," adding “you may be held liable for failing to properly report this because the city is tired of paying out settlement money.”

He further explained that “you can’t be sexually harassed because you are a supervisor," the lawsuit states.

Marchetti-Brock said she couldn’t comment on whether the ERU was ever made aware of complaints by either McCowan or Allen.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart speaks to members of Philadelphia's acting board of elections inside a courtroom at Philadelphia City Hall. The City Controller has renewed her calls for the administration to adopt more aggressive sexual harassment investigation procedures following the resignation of the police commissioner.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart speaks to members of Philadelphia's acting board of elections inside a courtroom at Philadelphia City Hall. The City Controller has renewed her calls for the administration to adopt more aggressive sexual harassment investigation procedures following the resignation of the police commissioner.

Rhynhart said having one unit that handles all sexual harassment claims would have prevented this from happening. She also was critical of what she saw as inconsistent and “reactive” handling of claims of sexual harassment within the department.

While Ross left the department after being accused of mishandling a report, a veteran police commander remains on the force after the city paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit by an officer who claimed he sexually assaulted her. In addition, the department in December promoted Inspector Anthony Washington — to a role that gave him oversight of the Special Victims Unit, Homicide, and Major Crimes — after he was accused of sexually harassing at least four female officers.

“If the mayor’s administration really wants to tackle this, then they also have to tackle these longstanding problem cases that are well known,” Rhynhart said. “There needs to be more gravity and weight to these types of things so it’s not just an issue once it gets to the headline stage.”

While Ross may have been required under the rules to take action after receiving a claim of sexual harassment, as McCowan claimed, any consensual relationship that may have existed between himself and McCowan wouldn’t have violated a policy.

Currently, sexual harassment training materials — which were updated over the last year — encourage employees to report consensual relationships to human resource officials, but the city doesn’t require employees to do so, even if the relationship is between a supervisor and a subordinate.

The Fire Department is the only city department with an anti-fraternization policy. Its policy requires that in the event a manager or supervisor develops a relationship with a subordinate, he or she is required to report it to the department’s human resources manager. (The Fire Department was the subject of a sex scandal in 2015, leading critics to say the department had a pervasive culture of sexual harassment.)

Experts on workplace culture and sexual harassment say that ideally, policies should prohibit relationships in a chain of command, where one person has direct authority over the other. At most companies, higher-ups would work with those individuals to transfer one person to another department or location if possible.

Staff writers Claudia Vargas, Laura McCrystal, and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.