The City of Philadelphia is tentatively heading to trial in a federal civil rights case that sparked the abrupt downfall of former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross.
U.S. District Court Judge Karen S. Marston scheduled a formal trial date for Feb. 4, 2021, according to an order filed Thursday in court.
The city is defending itself against allegations that the former top cop and other deputies failed to handle sexual harassment and discrimination complaints made by two female officers on the 6,500-member force. Ross was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney at the start of his first term in 2016.
The case didn’t immediately explode into a scandal when it landed in the U.S. Eastern District last summer. Allegations of sexual misconduct and systemic failures to address it are commonplace in the Philadelphia Police Department — and so many cases end up in court that they rarely make the news.
In the original complaint, filed in July, Corporal Audra McCowan and Officer Jennifer Allen alleged a litany of sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. Male colleagues made jokes about their appearance and made unwanted sexual advances, they claimed. They also allegedly lost promotions that went instead to less-experienced officers. In all these matters, the two women alleged police brass brushed their complaints under the rug.
About a month later, McCowan and Allen filed an amendment to their complaint.
The filing contained new allegations that Ross and McCowan had an affair between 2009 and 2011. McCowan claimed Ross personally ignored her claims of harassment and discrimination at the hands of her male colleagues as retaliation for their long-fizzled love affair, according to the lawsuit.
Ross resigned within 24 hours of the amendment’s appearance in court. He later said he was not forced out, but left to avoid creating a “distraction” for the department, which had already been rocked by numerous scandals and high-profile events at the time.
It’s still not clear if the case will actually make it before a jury.
It remains rare for the city to take civil rights complaints against police officers to trial — particularly in high-profile cases. Most are settled out of court.
But following Thursday’s pretrial conference, the case moves forward into the evidence discovery phase. The Kenney administration declined to comment on its plans, citing the ongoing litigation.
The attorney for McCowan and Allen did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.