Philly’s police commissioner resigns after lawsuit alleging affair with officer

Former Commissioner Ross is accused of ignoring harassment claims as retribution for a fizzled love affair.

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Updated 10:30 a.m.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross’ sudden resignation appears to be tied to scintillating claims in a lawsuit alleging the city’s former top cop had an affair with a police officer a decade ago.

The claims emerged as part of an ongoing federal civil rights suit originally filed in late July by Corporal Audra McCowan and Officer Jennifer Allen. The original suit alleges systemic failure by police brass to respond to harassment complaints made by both female officers. But details of an alleged affair between Ross and McCowan between 2009 and 2011 didn’t become part the suit until Monday, when an amendment was filed.

Ross’ failure to effectively respond to sexual harassment complaints brought by McCowen against a separate officer, the suit asserts, was a form of retribution for their fizzled love affair.

“So why don’t you just order his dumb ass to go sit down and get out of your face?” Ross is purported to have said when McCowen’s complaints were brought to his attention in February.

McCowan claims she texted Ross to inform him of the ongoing harassment and discrimination from her male colleagues. Ross did nothing, according to the lawsuit. McCowan alleges the PPD leader, instead, told her he would “school her on sexual harassment,” and brushed the claims under the rug.

The lawsuit went unreported until Ross’ departure was made public by Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday. Deputy Commissioner Coulter, who Kenney named as Ross’ interim replacement, is also named as a defendant in the suit. Both plaintiffs allege Coulter knew of the complaints.

McCowan, 36, identifies as black and is married to a sergeant in the police department. Allen, 38, is a Hispanic officer married to another police officer.

The lawsuit claims both officers “suffered continuous and ongoing” sexual harassment. It also alleges widespread race- and gender-based discrimination by both coworkers and supervisors, most of whom are male.

The lawsuit alleges misconduct consisting of non-consensual groping, unwanted sexual advances and harassment about breastfeeding in the workplace — claims of which went ignored by a string of supervisors, including Ross.

After lodging those complaints, both Allen and McCowan lost their posts in the department’s elite analysis and investigations unit, according to their attorney Ian Bryson.”As a result of their reports, one of them was assigned to police radio and the other one was assigned to tow squad,” Bryson said Tuesday.

Ross and 10 other officers — among them now-interim Police Commissioner Coulter, a chief inspector, four sergeants, an inspector and a lieutenant — are named as defendants. One of the inspectors who allegedly ignored the plaintiffs’ complaints, Chief Inspector Anthony Washington, was himself subject to a sexual harassment scandal.

Numerous supervisors were informed of the misconduct in January of this year, the officers allege, but nothing was done. A prior complaint, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, detailed similar allegations.

Allegations of ‘unrelenting and ‘inappropriate’ behavior go beyond Ross

The mayor’s office only vaguely alluded to the alleged incidents in a surprise press release on Tuesday announcing Ross’ resignation. Deanna Gamble, a spokesperson for Kenney, said that Ross “failed to act adequately after learning about the alleged harassment.”

Asked why the mayor waited until mention of the affair appeared in court records before issuing a statement, Gamble said the mayor not aware of the complaint until Monday.

“The amended complaint was filed yesterday and that’s when the mayor was made aware of [the litigation],” Gamble said.

The broader suit also includes allegations against a string of other Philadelphia police. Those include:

  • In 2012, while on duty, Allen claims she was “unwittingly grabbed” on two occasions by her immediate supervisor, Sergeant Bradford Williams. Williams allegedly squeezed her butt while trailing her on a staircase. A few weeks later, Williams allegedly grabbed her butt again after the pair finished serving a warrant.
  • In 2015, McCowan claims Officer Patrick Fisher told her, “you’re giving action in my pants” and “bend over like that again.” Fisher also allegedly tried to kiss McCowan and touch her butt. An internal affairs complaint declined to punish Fisher, forcing McCowan to continue working with him.
  • Officer Curtis Younger began making “unrelenting” and “inappropriate” sexual advances Allen in 2014, which persisted through this year despite requests to stop made by both Allen and her husband, according to the lawsuit. McCowan alleges she rejected similar advances from Younger over the years. Earlier this year, both plaintiffs say Younger’s harassment escalated to touching. Supervisors were made aware of the activity on several occasions, but failed to act, the suit claims.
  • Early in 2019, Allen alleges she went to the women’s locker room at a police facility to pump breast milk, which she then stored in the cafeteria fridge to take home to her newborn child. Allen claims most of the milk was removed from the container before the end of her shift. She filed a complaint with Sergeant Williford, who promised to write an email addressing the issue to staff, but never did. Rather, Allen claims Williford made passing jokes to Allen about her stolen milk, and commented about his own  “needing milk” and “wanting chocolate milk.”
  • Allen and McCowan also claimed they observed supervisors forging attendance records to mandatory sexual harassment trainings in early 2019. Mayor Kenney began ordering new training for all government agencies last year — a mandate born largely from the city’s history of mishandled sexual harassment cases among police officers.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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