When I started my legal career, an older male attorney sexually harassed me. It made me question everything, from my choice to work in a male-dominated career field to whether I did or said something to encourage the unwelcomed advances from a man designated as my professional mentor.
But most of all, it made me angry. And it drove me to work very hard to stamp out this type of toxic behavior. Through my career as a Washington, DC prosecutor and human resources professional in Delaware state government, I earned a reputation as a relentless fighter against harassment, discrimination and bias.
When County Executive Matt Meyer took office in 2017, he hired me because he shares this approach. The County Executive and I have no tolerance, no acceptance and no patience for workplace harassment.
And to truly defeat harassment, we knew we needed to be proactive.
We had heard about county government’s old-school office politics, where it was difficult for employees to speak out against powerful senior staff. And so, when the County Executive took office, we did not simply sit back and wait to see if a complaint came to us. Instead, we took immediate action to uncover and eliminate harassment.
Here’s what we did:
We mandated a Respectful Behavior in the Workplace course and sexual harassment prevention training for employees. We realigned job duties in the Office of Human Resources and appointed the first EEO/ADA Officer in the County’s history. We reformed the county’s policies and procedures to enable us to better identify, investigate, and eliminate harassment.
And most importantly, we made it easier for employees to report harassment by establishing a radical “open door” policy. We made it very clear to all employees. If you have something to report, you can contact the County Executive or me directly- by phone, by email, by mail or in person. It is completely confidential. And you can do it without fear of consequences, repercussions or retaliation. In a workforce with over 2000 employees, we want to know if something is wrong anywhere.
We were made aware of a potential problem in mid-2018, when we found a video on social media in which a man was speaking about the county police department. In it, he referenced rumors about incidents of sexual harassment committed by a high-ranking officer within the department.
Of course, the video did not prove that anything had actually happened. The alleged incidents were said to have happened years ago, long before our administration took office. And the statute of limitations would have long since expired.
But none of that mattered. If there was any chance that harassment happened at any time, we had a responsibility to fully investigate. Ignoring it was not an option.
We made contact with one officer who indicated that she was a victim of alleged harassment. At first, she was reluctant to meet and open a case.
But we explained that she could speak to us directly, confidentially and on her own terms, with no fear of repercussions. She requested to bring her attorney, and we gladly granted that request. We wanted to do whatever we could to make her comfortable coming forward. As a result, she agreed to meet.
I know personally it is tough to come forward. I understood her hesitation and why she waited so long. But we are glad that she finally did, and we applaud her for her courage.
Within hours of receiving the complaint, the accused officer’s badge was taken. He never worked another day as a New Castle County Police officer.
The County Executive communicated with all County police officers and every County employee, encouraging them to come forward with any information. And women did. Because these women came forward, it was possible to conduct a full and comprehensive investigation of the alleged behavior. After decades of silence, these issues came to the forefront.
To avoid any bias or conflict of interest, we asked an impartial outside police agency, the Wilmington Police Department, to conduct the investigation. When the investigation was complete, WPD concluded in its report that most of the women’s claims were credible. We strongly believe the public should be able to see this report and know the details of the alleged inappropriate behavior.
Unfortunately, a misguided state law, passed in 1985, makes it illegal for us to release this report, or any other internal report, on police officer misconduct. This law is wrong. It robs the public of its right to know and possibly of your trust. And it is deeply unfair to victims of harassment. The County Executive and I are calling on the General Assembly to change this law so that reports like these are no longer hidden from view.
We are proud of how we handled and resolved this case. Had we not taken action, longstanding allegations likely would have remained secrets forever. The investigation never would have happened. The women’s voices never would have been heard.
We created enabling environments for female officers to come forward and report their allegations.
We will continue on this path, ensuring that your county government is a harassment-free workplace. We continue to take every step to prevent harassment before it starts. But if someone does engage in harassment, we hold them accountable. Rank, seniority and position do not matter. They will face consequences.
New Castle County government, now more than ever, is a workplace where women can lead, succeed and thrive. The Meyer Administration has more women in senior positions than any other government in our state. The New Castle County Police Department has more women in command staff leadership positions than any other police agency in the state. Women play an enormous role in running this county, and we intend to keep it that way.
That is why we repeatedly encourage county employees in the strongest terms- if you experience, observe or suspect sexual harassment in the workplace, report it. And you can bring it directly to the County Executive or me. If there is any harassment in county government, we want to know about it, and we will take immediate action.
We refuse to stand idly by and sweep it under the rug. We refuse to allow any woman working for county government to endure what I once endured.
Vanessa Phillips is the Chief Administrative Officer for New Castle County