Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned Tuesday, a day after a woman in the department claimed in a lawsuit that he ignored her claim of sexual harassment by another officer because she broke off a two-year affair with Ross in 2011.
Mayor Jim Kenney did not address that specific allegation in a news release announcing the departure. Instead, he said that Ross had not adequately responded to allegations of racial and sexual discrimination in the department that were included in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and subsequent lawsuit filed by Cpl. Audra McCowan — the woman who alleged the affair — and Patrol Officer Jennifer Allen.
“I do not believe the Police Department has taken the necessary actions to address the underlying cultural issues that too often negatively impact women — especially women of color,” Kenney said.
Ross did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night.
A Philadelphia native and three-decade veteran of the department, Ross seemingly had been groomed for the top job for most of his career and was widely admired in a department often rife with gossip and jealousy. The news of his departure shocked the city’s criminal justice and political establishment; commanders were left stunned after being called to a hastily arranged meeting in the afternoon to receive the news.
After being sworn in as commissioner in January 2016, Ross navigated a variety of high-profile events and scandals in a city that had begun rethinking its approach to criminal justice. Just on Thursday, Kenney proclaimed Ross “the best police commissioner in America” after he helped to negotiate a gunman’s surrender during a violent standoff in Tioga that left six cops wounded by bullets.
Deputy Commissioner Christine M. Coulter was named interim commissioner, Kenney said — the first time in department history that a woman has been the top cop. The police employ about 6,500 people, one of the largest forces in the nation.
The claim of Ross’ alleged affair is referenced in just one paragraph of an amended version of the lawsuit that McCowan and Allen filed Monday.
According to the filing, McCowan texted and called the commissioner in February 2019 to tell him about a male colleague who repeatedly sexually harassed her. The complaint says Ross responded by asking, “So why don’t you just order his dumb ass to go sit down and get out of your face?”
During the same conversation, McCowan alleges, Ross said he would “school” her on sexual harassment — and said he was standing in the way of her complaints being addressed “in retribution for breaking off their two-year affair” of 2009 to 2011.
Neither the previous EEOC complaint nor an earlier version of the lawsuit mentioned the alleged affair, and Ian M. Bryson, one of their attorneys, declined to elaborate on the allegations Tuesday night.
The lawsuit also details a litany of sexual harassment and discrimination complaints against colleagues who McCowan and Allen say repeatedly made jokes about their appearance, hit on them, and denied them promotions granted to less-experienced officers.
The women say they received harassing calls at home from colleagues and subordinates, were groped while at work — once in an office prayer circle — and were belittled and transferred to less-desirable jobs when they complained.
Allen, a new mother, detailed several instances in which she said she was shamed for pumping breast milk for her baby during working hours. In one case, the suit claims, when Allen — who is black and Hispanic — complained that someone had tampered with a bag of breast milk she had stored in an office refrigerator, a supervisor cracked jokes about wanting “chocolate milk.”
McCowan, who is black, claimed that after filing an internal complaint earlier this year, an Internal Affairs sergeant sent to interview her told her, “You can’t be sexually harassed because you are a supervisor,” and added, “My wife is black.”
The Justice Department issued the women a “right-to-sue letter” in June, a step that indicates the EEOC determined they had grounds for a discrimination claim.
Their suit, originally filed the following month, seeks compensatory and punitive damages, but their complaint does not specify a desired dollar amount. They also ask the court to issue an injunction that would bar the department from changing their hours, shifting their job assignments, or retaliating in any other way for suing. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
Bryson said in an interview Tuesday night: “We want to see workers treated better, and we want to see people who are victims of this kind of behavior, we want to see justice for those people.”
None of the defendants — which include the city, Ross, and 10 other members of the department — has yet responded to the amended complaint.
Coulter, Ross’ interim replacement, also is named as a defendant. Court filings offer little in the way of specific complaints against her, and she is largely described as one of several members of the department’s top brass who denied McCowan’s requests to transfer units.
The suit has familiar echoes of recent department scandals over allegations of sexual harassment.
In 2016, a detective named Michele Vandegrift sued the city, claiming that she’d been harassed throughout her career and sexually assaulted by Chief Inspector Carl Holmes. It marked the second time that Holmes had been accused of sexually assaulting a female Philly cop.
The city settled Vandegrift’s lawsuit in 2017 for $1.25 million.
Between 2011 and 2014, the city spent nearly $200,000 to settle lawsuits against Inspector Anthony Washington over allegations that included sexual harassment of several female officers and civil rights violations.
Earlier this year, Washington was appointed to a new position that gave him oversight of several units — most notably the Special Victims Unit. Advocates for sexual assault victims were outraged, but Ross defended Washington. At the time, the Kenney administration said it trusted Ross “to make personnel decisions that are in the best interest of the department.”
Few who know Ross saw Tuesday’s news coming.
After the news was announced by Kenney, Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, a black officers’ union, and the Democratic nominee for sheriff, answered a reporter’s call by picking up the phone and saying: “I have no idea.”
John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and a classmate of Ross’ at the Police Academy, said: “It’s just a kick in the gut. He did a great job for the city, for more than three decades. He’s well-respected. I think the city is going to miss him.”
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by Ross’ resignation, but added that “it is very troubling to learn of allegations of sexual harassment and gender and racial discrimination within the department. We must have zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind within the Police Department and any city agency.”
Ross joined the department in 1989, working patrol in Olney’s 35th District before moving up to more prominent assignments in the Homicide Unit and Internal Affairs.
In 2005, then-Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson made Ross a deputy commissioner, and he later served as then-Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey’s first deputy for eight years, which afforded him the chance to run many of the department’s day-to-day operations.
» FROM 2015: Meet Richie Ross, Philly’s next top cop
Ramsey once called him “one of the brightest people in the business,” describing him as “very steady, very thoughtful, and doesn’t fly off the handle.”
Before he got the reins to the department, Ross recounted an anecdote from earlier in his career, when he was working in the Homicide Unit and standing at a murder scene. Before he left, he realized that a group of young boys had been watching him.
"So one of the kids walked up to me at the end of the [news conference] and said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like you,’” Ross said. “And that told me that people are always watching, that you can have a profound impact on people when you don’t even realize it.”