‘It’s a thankless job’: Kenney says next police commissioner must face the same challenges Ross did

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at a press conference regarding Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross' resignation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at a press conference regarding Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross' resignation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 2:20 p.m.

Now former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross submitted his resignation letter to the city’s Managing Director Brian Abernathy on Monday night, Mayor Jim Kenney said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. 

Abernathy and Kenney told Ross they wanted to wait until the following day to make a decision about whether to accept the commissioner’s resignation.

“It’s a serious decision for a police commissioner to resign,” Kenney said. “The role is one of our most important, if not the most important appointee we make.”

At the time, Kenney said he did not know all the details of a federal lawsuit alleging Ross and other police department brass had intentionally ignored complaints of sexual harassment from two female members of the department. One of the plaintiffs, Corporal Audra McCowan, said the lack of action was retribution for an affair she had with Ross that fizzled after two years.

On Wednesday, Kenney praised Ross as a “great leader” during his three-and-a-half-year tenure as the city’s top cop. His critical role in ending a nearly eight-hour standoff that resulted in six police officers being shot was a great example of that, the mayor said.

Kenney emphasized that it was Ross’ choice to step down, and said he was hesitant at first “just out of human feeling.”

“We both agreed that it was the best course of action for the department at this particular time,” Kenney said.

The mayor stressed that the allegations against Ross still need to be proven. 

Deputy Christine Coulter was immediately appointed as acting commissioner, which was announced by the mayor’s office Tuesday evening. Coulter is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs allege that Coulter knew of the complaints made against Ross and others. Kenney would not comment on her inclusion in the lawsuit. 

Kenney said the search for a new commissioner will start soon, and his administration plans to look both internally and nationally for someone who can “garner respect from the rank and file and the community just as Richard Ross did.”

When asked if Coulter would like to make her position as commissioner permanent, she said, “I would love to continue serving the city. That’s all I can tell you right now.” 

Coulter is also the first female leader of the Philadelphia Police Department. 

“We are only about half a day into this process, so there’s a lot going on, but I have always been honored, as both a woman and a police officer, to serve this city and I look forward to doing that moving forward,” Coulter said. 

One thing Coulter says she would like to see violence in the city decrease.

The mayor added that diversity will be a priority in finding Ross’s replacement — as well as finding a commissioner who is dedicated to changing the city’s criminal justice system. 

“Someone who is committed to building a stronger department, bolstering morale, and addressing the workplace challenges that have existed within law enforcement for some time,” Kenney said.

Kenney would not comment on specifics of the lawsuit. A third party will investigate the police department within the context of the complaint, in a similar vein to the city’s investigation into offensive posts on social media made by several police officers. It’s not clear how long the investigation will last.

Philadelphia has had issues with how it handles allegations of sexual harassment within city government in the past. Just over a year ago, the city announced sweeping updates to its workplace sexual harassment policy — including an online reporting system, as well as mandatory and recurring sexual harassment prevention training.

Kenney said these new policies should help address current and future concerns within the police department and city government. 

Some local social justice organizations, including the Rally for Justice Coalition, have requested the inclusion of community opinion in the search for a new commissioner. Kenney said his office plans to seek input from residents, clergy, and criminal justice reform advocates.

Ross told reporters outside Philadelphia Police Department Headquarters earlier Wednesday that he never “sought retribution” against anyone, personally or professionally, and that he left the department voluntarily. 

“I just thought for the greater good of all citizens of Philadelphia, [the] fine police officers here, and the mayor, that it would be better if I just move along,” he said. “Given everything else that we have to contend with, that this issue would be a distraction that this department and this city don’t need.”

During Wednesday’s press conference, Kenney also suggested that the stressors of being head of the city’s police department may have also contributed to Ross leaving his post.

“It’s a hard job … and it’s sometimes a thankless job because you never are perfect,” Kenney said. “I know how seriously he internalized this job and I find myself doing the same thing. You need a break, you need something different. I think he made the right decision for himself.”

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