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Latest female Philly cops harassment lawsuit echoes decades-long problem

Amid national attention on sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, experts say little has improved for female cops.

A police car is seen near an accident scene in Philadelphia in June.
A police car is seen near an accident scene in Philadelphia in June.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When Patricia Getty joined the Philadelphia Police Department as one of its first female officers in 1976, there were no bathrooms, locker rooms, or uniforms for women, and she and other rookies were forced to cut their hair short.

“They told us, ‘If you want to be a man, then you’re going to act like a man,’ ” she recalled Thursday.

By the time she retired as a lieutenant in 2002, “things had progressed tremendously. There were many more women; there were many more women that had been promoted in leadership roles, the opportunities to go into special units opened up,” said Getty, 64. “Things were looking good. Things were looking up.”

But the lawsuit from two female officers that on Tuesday helped spur Police Commissioner Richard Ross’ sudden resignation suggests mistreatment and discrimination is far from a thing of the past. In fact, at least 18 female Philadelphia police officers have filed harassment or discrimination lawsuits over the last two decades and the city has paid out at least $1.75 million in settlements.

» READ MORE: Richard Ross resigns as Philly police commissioner after female officer alleges affair with, and retribution from, him

The claims portray a police department where the culture often still tolerates sexual harassment, keeps women from promotions or other opportunities, and attempts to silence complaints with retaliation.

“This is repeated in one department after another across the country — big departments, small departments,” said Kathy Spillar, executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation, which houses the National Center for Women & Policing.

In December, nearly 100 women, including police officers and researchers, attended the National Institute of Justice’s Research Summit on Women in Policing. The officers there reported similar concerns — about harassment, sexism, double standards, and a lack of support and opportunity. They described their work environment as a “boys’ club.”

Women account for only 13% of officers nationwide, and Spillar said she believes some of the harassment reflects an attempt to bully them out of the job. “There is still a pervasive culture in police departments across the country," she said, "a fundamental belief that women are not capable and should not be police officers.”

Nationally, the #MeToo movement has put a spotlight on sexual harassment in the last few years. But that hasn’t necessarily had an impact for officers and other blue-collar workers, said Dorothy Schulz, a retired transit police captain and professor emerita at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“The challenges of women police officers predate MeToo,” she said in an email, “and will continue well beyond it.”

» READ MORE: The full complaint that led to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross’ ouster

A repeated problem

Like in many cities, the Philadelphia Police Department first allowed women to join because of a gender discrimination lawsuit. Today, women make up 22% of the department’s sworn officers.

In a statement emailed Thursday, a spokesperson said the department is “committed to fostering a working environment free of harassment” and takes all allegations seriously. The department requires regular harassment training: every three years for all officers and employees; biannually for supervisors; and annually for commanders ranking captain or above.

Linda McGinnis, another woman who was part of that inaugural group of female officers and who retired in 2009, said she believed women had achieved equality in policing.

“We always went by ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones ... ,’” said McGinnis, 69. “You give yourself an amount of pride in what you do and the men will respect you.”

Over the decades, however, harassment issues have repeatedly arisen.

In 1988, a federal jury awarded damages to two female police officers who contended the harassment they endured included coworkers slashing their tires and destroying their case files to make it appear the women couldn’t keep up with their work.

In 1995, department leaders underwent sexual-harassment training that included teaching them not to call women “honey” or “sweetie.” The training also included the direction: “No asking about sexual fantasies or preferences. No kissing sounds or smacking lips.” According to an Inquirer account of the class, one officer who was asked what he wanted to get out of the program replied: “How can I get sexually harassed?”

Three years later, one of the department’s two female inspectors accepted a settlement after alleging she had been sexually harassed and punished by her supervisor.

In 2008, Chief Inspector Carl Holmes was accused of forcing a female officer into his patrol car and sexually assaulting her. That same year, Holmes allegedly called a different female detective into his office and shoved his hand down her pants. That case ultimately ended with a $1.25 million payout.

In 2011, the city paid $75,000 to settle two sexual-harassment lawsuits filed by cops against then-Capt. Anthony Washington.

Last year, an audit by Controller Rebecca Rhynhart noted that of 11 internal Police Department harassment complaints made between 2012 and 2018, one alleged harasser was dismissed and two suspended; the rest received a verbal warning or participated in nonpunitive training.

» READ MORE: After police commissioner resigns, Philadelphia’s sexual harassment policies again under scrutiny

One of the more recent claims came this year from Detective Lisa Salvato, who in June sued the department, saying she was transferred, isolated, and denied promotion after complaining about harassment. One supervisor nicknamed her “spankasauras.”

“Male employees of all ranks in the Philadelphia police department on a weekly basis barrage female officers with demeaning sexist comments and conduct,” her lawsuit states.

In another open lawsuit, Philadelphia police officer Jasmine Colon claims that after she reported being harassed, other officers told her, “Keep your mouth shut” and “Put your big girl panties on.” She also said one colleague asked her: “Why would you even report it?”

‘People are afraid to speak out’

Ian M. Bryson, the attorney for Cpl. Audra McCowan and Officer Jennifer Allen, who filed the lawsuit this week, said the number of internal complaints that Rhynhart cited in her audit — 11 for a department of thousands — is misleading.

“That’s not because people aren’t being harassed,” he said. “It’s because people are afraid to speak out.”

McCowan, 36, and Allen, 38, alleged that male coworkers made inappropriate comments, slapped their butts, and made comments like “You’re giving me action in my pants.” As the mother of an infant, Allen said, she was told that a boss said she and another officer, who was also nursing, “should pump at the same time in the same room.”

“You don’t want to be labeled a troublemaker,” a sergeant allegedly told McCowan as she attempted to file a complaint.

In the amended lawsuit she filed this week, McCowan claimed that she complained to Ross this year about sexual harassment by another officer, but he ignored her as retribution for ending a two-year affair they had in 2011.

Ross has not been accused of harassing any female officers. But the lawsuit says that such harassment permeates and is tolerated in each of the 21 districts in the department.

Neither Ross nor Mayor Jim Kenney this week would comment on the women’s specific claims.

While the city searches for Ross’ replacement, the mayor named Christine M. Coulter as acting police commissioner, the first woman ever to hold the top job. Kenney also said the city would hire a firm to investigate and make recommendations to the Police Department, which he said has not addressed “underlying” cultural issues.

“Sexual harassment happens every day in every segment of our society,” Kenney said at a news conference Wednesday. “So this stuff permeates our society and we have to do our best as a government to keep it from happening to our own employees, and we will do that.”

Staff writers Claudia Vargas and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Feminist Majority Foundation.