Less than a week after Mayor Jim Kenney called Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross the best police commissioner in the country for his role in a standoff between a shooter and police, Ross resigned. The announcement Tuesday followed a complaint filed with the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission and a subsequent lawsuit by Cpl. Audra McCowan and Patrol Officer Jennifer Allen, alleging sexual harassment as well as gender and racial discrimination in the Philadelphia Police Department. The suit and complaint further allege that when McCowan came to Ross with the allegations he dismissed her in retribution for her breaking up a two-year affair between the two.
The focus following Ross’ resignation is on who the next commissioner will be — and rightfully so. The job of the Philadelphia police commissioner is critical, especially in this time of rising homicides, persistently high overdose rate, and efforts to reform our criminal justice practices. But the complaint of McCowan and Allen is another reminder that the culture of the Philadelphia Police Department is extremely broken.
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McCowan and Allen’s complaint paints a horrifying picture of what it means to be a woman — especially a woman of color — in the Philadelphia Police Department. Being groped, harassed, ‘hit on,’ and the subject of sexual and gross jokesare apparently all part of the job. Complaining leads to ostracization.
These developments should be a shock, but not a surprise — not for a police department with such a long history of scandal. Earlier this summer, the Plain View Project released a catalog of violent, racist, offensive, and misogynistic Facebook posts by 330 active duty officers. Another lawsuit that was filed in June alleges that the Police Department has a sexist culture that protects male officers. Case in point: In April, The Inquirer reported that an inspector who was accused of sexual harassment by multiple woman was promoted to oversee the special victims unit, among other major crime units.
The culture of violence — verbal or physical (and yes, groping is violence) — runs so deep in the Police Department that it is impossible to believe that anyone, from rank and file members to top officials, are unaware. The fact that the list of defendants in the lawsuit includes 10 police officials in addition to Ross, including Christine Coulter who was picked as acting commissioner, is an indictment of the entire department and the culture that shapes it. The department suspended Coulter in the ’90s for her involvement of a cover-up of a police beating that lead to the death of a suspect (which arbitration overturned).