A recent audit of Philadelphia city government found 121 reports of sexual harassment between July 2012 and April 2018.  Those included 102 complaints of verbal harassment, 44 of sexual misconduct, and seven complaints of coercion. Almost all of the complaints were investigated and about half were substantiated.

In a workforce numbering 27,000, is this a disturbingly high number of complaints, or nothing to worry about?

The right answer is that any figure is disturbingly high, but the key revelation from the audit, by the Office of City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, is that there are so many inconsistencies from department to department in how complaints are handled that the number of cases is not an accurate barometer of what's happening in the city's workforce.  Not even $2.2 million paid to settle harassment claims is a barometer, since the audit found that the city's Law Department has inadequate systems for tracking litigation specific to sexual misconduct cases.

The lack of  consistent policy and procedures affects every city worker.   It impacts (mostly) women who often have no guidelines for how to file a complaint or what to expect while a claim is being investigated.  It affects workers, who have no guidelines for knowing how substantiated cases will be handled or even what kind of behavior is problematic.  In some departments, for example, written warnings were given for behavior that other departments dealt with more seriously.

Unfortunately, the city has a high-profile example of the system's failures — the city's sheriff, Jewell Williams.

An internal investigation substantiated a claim made by a worker accusing Williams of sexual harassment. As Rhynhart noted during a news conference about her office's audit, city policy dictates that the department head and cabinet head overseeing the department get copies of harassment investigations.  That means that the sheriff received a copy of the report and was expected to offer conclusions and recommendations following the investigation into his own behavior.  (It's unknown if he did so.)

As an elected official, Williams is not subject to the same measures or policies that apply to executive-branch employees; both Mayor Kenney and Rhynhart have called on him to resign. Williams has denied the allegations.

On the heels of the controller's audit, the mayor signed an executive order to institute a new harassment prevention policy that includes training, better tracking of claims,  and streamlining filing of complaints. But that doesn't address the audit's main finding:  the need for a centralized system to investigate complaints and better formalize discipline and policy.

Setting up an independent body will cost money, but considering the financial liability such cases represent – especially in cases that aren't initially handled properly —  it would be a responsible expense to incur. The city has paid, on average, about $366,000 a year during the audit's time frame.

The choice seems simple:  Pay to set up a system that ensures workers feel safe from misconduct and gives them a path for redress — or keep writing checks to cover those who haven't gotten the message that sexual harassment, demeaning behavior, or coercion of others is not acceptable.