The City of Philadelphia has paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit by a woman who claimed a veteran police commander sexually assaulted her when she was an officer in a department in which she said sexual harassment was pervasive.
The commander, Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, remains on the job eight months after the payout — but the fallout may not be over.
Mayor Kenney’s spokesman said Thursday that the mayor found the case against Holmes and the Police Department “extremely troubling, from start to end.” And although Kenney did not call for anyone to step down — as he did after a much smaller payout to settle similar claims against city Sheriff Jewell Williams — he left open the possibility that the city’s new top prosecutor may launch his own review.
The allegations against Holmes are a decade old. But the settlement, first reported last week by the website The Declaration, came during a year in which similar and damning allegations against powerful men in the workplace have surfaced almost daily, leading to a national reckoning in Hollywood, the media, and politics.
Although a settlement is not an admission of guilt, the judge overseeing the case offered a pointed assessment before the city agreed to resolve it earlier this year. The accuser, the judge wrote in a memo, “has provided sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude the City knew of its specific problems with sexual assault and harassment in the police department … but did little or nothing to stop such conduct.”
Nancy O’Mara Ezold, an attorney who regularly represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases but was not involved in this suit, said the woman’s allegations appeared significant enough that the city could have risked a much higher payout by airing such ugly accusations before a jury.
“If a fraction of [the claims] were true,” Ezold said in an interview Thursday, “this is a horrific case.”
The settlement is the most recent involving the Philadelphia Police Department over allegations of sexual harassment, but not the first. Over the past decade, according to public records, the city paid $222,000 to resolve five sexual harassment lawsuits involving cops. Only two other city agencies — the prison system and the airport — have settled sexual harassment cases since 2007, the records show.
Holmes’ accuser did not respond to requests for comments. The Inquirer and Daily News do not identify alleged victims of sex crimes without their permission given.
The commander has also been accused of sexual assault by another woman: Former officer Christa Hayburn said in 2008 that he forced her into a sex act inside his police car two years earlier. In 2013, she voluntarily dropped a civil suit against the city related to that claim.
Holmes has denied both women’s allegations and was not criminally charged in either incident. He remains on the force with a salary of $148,288, according to city payroll records. He declined to comment for this article.
Kenney’s spokesman, Mike Dunn, said the Police Department, along with the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations, recently decided to implement “comprehensive sexual harassment training,” which will be required annually for all employees in the department.
A police spokesman said the department “takes all allegations of harassment and sexual harassment very seriously” and is “committed to maintaining a working environment free of harassment.”
The former detective filed a complaint in federal court in 2016, alleging that during her time on the force, which began in 2004, she was routinely subjected to sexually charged or derogatory comments. She worked as an officer in Kensington and North Philadelphia, and later as one of the few female detectives in South Philadelphia, according to her complaint.
Specific examples included male colleagues making lewd comments about her appearance, spreading rumors about her having sexual relationships with male colleagues, and exposing themselves to her, the complaint said.
In her most serious claim, the woman alleged that Holmes in 2007 called her to his office, then stuck his hand down her pants and sexually assaulted her. Shocked, she quickly walked out, her complaint said.
The woman said that she filed internal complaints about being harassed and assaulted in 2014, but that those actions got her reassigned to a busier detective bureau, in Southwest Philadelphia, which she viewed as punishment.
Meanwhile, Internal Affairs investigated her allegations and cleared Holmes of any wrongdoing, according to a January memorandum from U.S. District Judge Mark A. Kearney, who oversaw the case and declined the city’s request to throw it out.
What’s more, Kearney wrote, an Internal Affairs commander, Chief Inspector Christopher Flacco, declined to forward the woman’s complaint to the District Attorney’s Office — even though one of his lieutenants had recommended doing so.
Dunn, the mayor’s spokesman, said those allegations “are incredibly serious and troubling. We anticipate the incoming [district attorney] will make his own determination.” A police spokesman said Flacco simply determined that
there was no t enough evidence to support criminal charges.
Holmes was similarly cleared by Internal Affairs following Hayburn’s 2008 accusations of sexual assault.
Hayburn, who joined the police force in 2001, alleged that Holmes forced her into his police car after a party in 2006, trying to kiss her and to engage in sexual acts before he ejaculated, according to Kearney’s memo. Semen later was found in the car, the memo said, but Holmes said it was because he’d had sexual activity in the vehicle with someone else.
Then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey demoted Holmes after that investigation, but Holmes earned his rank back through arbitration, according to the Daily News, which chronicled Hayburn’s accusations in 2012.
Holmes’ lawyer at the time, Wadud Ahmad, told the newspaper: “There was no wrongdoing. No criminal charges were ever filed, not even close to being filed.”
Hayburn later was fired from the Police Department and said in an interview Thursday that she had been accused of lying about a medical issue. She has since taken up motivational speaking about her alleged encounter with Holmes — and said she believes it’s past time for the current national dialogue about harassment to trickle down to municipal agencies.
“People can accuse the president and governors, senators,” she said. “It’s the same in the local departments as well.”
The woman who earned a settlement, meanwhile, resigned from the Police Department in April and took a job with the law firm that represented her. She was awarded $650,000 in damages and $100,000 in back pay, while her attorneys were paid $500,000.
Mayor Kenney said last month that Williams should resign as sheriff in the wake of reports that female employees were pursuing legal action after accusing him of workplace sexual harassment, and that a third woman received a $30,000 settlement in 2012 after suing him for sexual harassment when he was a state representative.