A quick note to our readers: we apologize for the interruption of our usual weekly posting schedule. Managing Editor Austin Nolen took the LSAT in early December, and between that and the holidays, we were unable to meet our normal schedule. Weekly posts will be resuming today. Now, on to the story.
By Austin Nolen
Shortly after a federal judge denied the City of Philadelphia’s bid last winter to throw out a wide-ranging sexual harassment case against the Police Department, officials paid $1,250,000 to former detective Michele Vandegrift to settle the case.
In her lawsuit, Vandegrift alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment by her fellow officers and that she was sexually assaulted in 2007 by Chief Inspector Carl Holmes.
Holmes has a long, troubled history with the Police Department. In 1992, he was suspended by then-Police Commissioner Richard Neal for assaulting a man with a kidney condition who was peeing in an alleyway. Arbitrators later reduced his suspension length.
In 2008, he was demoted to Captain from Inspector after investigators concluded that he had consensual sex in a government vehicle.
That investigation of Holmes began, however, when a different subordinate officer claimed he had attempted to rape her in the car, a claim which Vandegrift claimed was not fairly investigated either.
Holmes currently serves as the Chief Inspector of Regional Operations Command-North, which oversees police districts in the River Wards, Northeast and Northwest sections of the city.
Once Vandegrift complained about the harassment and the assault by Holmes, her suit alleged, her complaints were leaked, the offenders weren’t disciplined and she was transferred and investigated for her own supposed inappropriate behavior.
According to Debra Casey, a former labor attorney and a human resources professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, settlements such as Vandegrift’s provide a key point for officials to strengthen their policies against harassment.
In an interview with The Declaration, Casey said that “changes made after a lawsuit are not allowed as evidence of prior wrongdoing, otherwise no one would make any changes.”
At the same time, Casey told The Declaration, lawsuits and settlements provide a wake-up call to organizations to implement those changes.
“I’d be more surprised to learn an organization wasn’t making changes after a settlement than that they were,” she said.
One effective policy reform, according to Casey, is turning over sexual harassment enforcement to a person independent of the government agency, “a person paid by the company but neutral, someone with a legal duty to keep complaints confidential.”
Casey also said that, while it would be legally tricky to discipline an employee for sexual harassment complaints for which they had already been cleared, even by a faulty process, it is important to do a thorough review of what went wrong in the handling of the complaints, “almost a forensic analysis.”
Spokespersons for both the City and the Police Department emphasized that the City takes sexual harassment seriously.
Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney, mentioned the anti-harassment training program run by the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations, which he said has reached about 1,900 employees this year, as a major part of the City’s effort to combat sexual harassment.
According to Dunn, “the Police Department also decided recently to institute comprehensive sexual harassment training. This training will be mandatory for all members, including leadership, and will be required on an annual basis. These changes came about after a review of our policies.”
Currently, investigations of sexual harassment in the Police Department are handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity unit within Internal Affairs, rather than an office which is independent of the command structure. And the Department’s harassment policy has not been updated since 2011.
Captain Sekou Kinebrew, a Police Department spokesperson, emphasized that the City admitted no wrongdoing in its settlement with Vandegrift, and that an internal police investigation did not sustain the allegations against Holmes.
$750,000 of the settlement agreed to by the City goes to Vandegrift in back pay and damages, while $500,000 goes to her attorneys.
As part of the settlement, Vandegrift also agreed to resign from the Department and not to work for other law enforcement agencies of the City, and the City agreed not to give her a negative reference. Temple professor Casey said these conditions are normal for harassment settlements and not necessarily retaliatory against the plaintiff.
You can view the settlement agreement between Vandegrift and the City of Philadelphia, which was released to The Declaration after we made a request under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law, here.