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Judge OKs discrimination case involving Philly police inspector accused of sex assault

Chief Inspector Carl Holmes former head of the Philadelphia school police (Emma Lee/NewsWorks

Chief Inspector Carl Holmes former head of the Philadelphia school police (Emma Lee/NewsWorks

A Philadelphia police inspector who two subordinates have accused of sexual assault may have to testify at civil trial, after a federal judge this week refused the city’s request to dismiss a female detective’s gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit.

In his Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark A. Kearney issued a stinging rebuke of the police department, writing that “a well-settled custom of sexual harassment” — that supervisors as high as the police commissioner ignore — afflicts the 6,100-officer force.

The case started in 2014, when Michele Vandegrift, a 13-year veteran who became a detective in 2011, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming Chief Inspector Carl Holmes regularly made sexual comments to her and sexually assaulted her in 2007.

Holmes has denied the charges.

Vandegrift filed a federal lawsuit against the city last June, claiming supervisors responded to her claims of sexual harassment by transferring her to Southwest Detectives (an assignment many regard as punishment because of how busy it is), withholding cases likely to require overtime, and even disciplining her for a Facebook message mocking a colleague. After her transfer, she claims, supervisors told her new colleagues about her discrimination complaint and warned them to “watch what they say around her,” which “primed [coworkers] to distrust” her, according to court documents.

Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation. But he added: “Any and all EEOC complaints or allegations are taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated. There is no room for sexual harassment or any other such behavior in the workplace, and it’s something that is not tolerated by the department.”

Still, Kearney highlighted concerns about how internal-affairs investigators probe and punish sexual harassment.

For example, Vandegrift’s alleged assault came one year after another officer, Christa Hayburn, told supervisors that Holmes similarly sexually assaulted her in his police car during a going-away party. Hayburn officially complained about it in February 2008. But even though investigators found Holmes’ semen in the car and two witnesses corroborated Hayburn’s account, Holmes told investigators that he instead had sex with a civilian in his car, and investigators didn’t sustain Hayburn’s complaint, according to court documents.

Then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey demoted Holmes to captain in 2008 for engaging in sexual activity in a police-issued vehicle, but after Holmes challenged his demotion, he was reinstated as inspector — and, in 2012, got promoted to chief inspector, which is just two ranks from the top job of commissioner, according to court documents.

As for Vandegrift’s other harassment claims, investigators found just one detective, who texted colleagues a profane photo ridiculing Vandegrift, guilty of misconduct. Yet the detective received no discipline, according to court documents. And the internal affairs boss, Chief Inspector Christopher Flacco, ignored a lieutenant’s recommendation to send Vandegrift’s sexual assault report to the District Attorney’s office, according to Kearney’s ruling.

Vandegrift’s lawsuit paints a picture of a testosterone-charged workplace where it’s not uncommon for men to make sexual comments to female colleagues, expose their genitals, send pornographic photos, and ogle and touch women inappropriately.

Such claims are hardly unprecedented. The city already has paid more than a half million dollars in recent years to settle such complaints against Holmes and other supervisors including Anthony Washington, William Blackburn, and Jerrold Bates.

“Ms. Vandegrift provides sufficient evidence of a persistent, ongoing pattern of harassment, which includes the 2007 sexual assault,” Kearney wrote in his ruling. “A reasonable jury could conclude the city failed to respond appropriately to Ms. Vandegrift’s allegations.”

Kearney added: “The police department must not turn a blind, or at least severely impaired, eye to specific complaints of sexual assault and harassment by identified officers upon the policewomen proudly serving our community.”

Vandegrift’s attorney, Stephen Console, declined to comment in detail on the case, saying only: “It is a privilege for our firm to represent Detective Vandegrift and assist in her courageous efforts to eliminate sexual harassment in the Philadelphia Police Department.”

The judge scheduled a Feb. 15 settlement conference and an April 5 trial.

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