Sexual harassment in the workplace—It may be that leering look, the inappropriate touch, unwanted attention, or perhaps it may be the Mayor explaining to a Federal Judge in a Consent Decree hearing that community policing includes having the favorite “eye candy officer” of the local YMCA sent to conduct special training at the Y.
Yes, that last item really happened. At the December 9, 2022 hearing in the case of the United States of America vs. City of Ferguson, Missouri, Mayor Ella M. Jones explained to Judge Catherine D. Perry the ways the Ferguson Police Department has engaged in community policing. At the top of page 12 of the court transcript, Mayor Jones helpfully explained and then even clarified when asked as follows:
The Court: Favorite – who’s the favorite eye candy officer?
Mayor Ella Jones: The YMCA has several officers that they love to call on, and they come up there to spend time with them and teach them various things. So if anything happens at the YMCA, they want their favorite eye candy officers to come up there.
The Court: I’d never heard that description, so thank you.
Mayor Ella Jones: I thought I’d put that in there. The staff is better prepared for anything that would happen at the YMCA.
Now, how does it come about in this day and age that sexually objectifying remarks about specific, though unnamed, police officers are made in federal court by the Mayor? One contributing reason may well be because the City of Ferguson currently provides no kind of training concerning sexual harassment law. It’s not simply a matter of council members, including the mayor, not also taking the training, no one takes any training. The City of Ferguson provides no such training for its staff. A recent request asked the city to provide information on “Any and all mandatory training for staff and elected officials,” and for the dates of any mandatory training given to staff, and who conducted the training. The city’s response was that currently they have no sexual harassment training for staff. Instead, they are waiting for that and other training to only begin the next fiscal year with the implementation of “LocalGovU” by Lexipol, a Learning Management System (LMS).
Clearly this situation is a lawsuit waiting to happen, perhaps even one already on the way. It’s also unquestionable that a revolving door for city staff exists, with many leaving in the past few years. The need for morale to improve has been spoken of in Council meetings a number of times. The recall of Council Member Toni Burrow was at least partially ignited by her harassment of now former City Manager Eric Osterberg. In the March 14th council meeting it was disclosed that the Police Department is down to 29 officers, far down from its one-time level of over fifty. Letting this go on to await “implementation” of a new system when training is widely available in other ways, online and in-person is unconscionable. Expecting morale to improve when basic training on harassment is not in place means the workplace is vulnerable and staff may well be dealing with a hostile environment without a proper mechanism for reporting incidents and ensuring their own well-being.
Nor is it acceptable in this day for the city, the Mayor, and the council member, Phedra Nelson, implicated by the Mayor’s statement as being a party to this harassment, to ignore what was said in court. Passive witnesses in the court hearing who did nothing to bring attention to the inappropriate sexual objective of city employees include yet another council member, Naquittia Noah, and the City Attorney, Apollo Carey. The city clearly lacks a requirement for reporting incidents witnessed. Action must be taken now that will encompass the training of all city staff and elected officials in the requirements of sexual harassment law and establish a municipal policy that includes requirements for reporting incidents and protecting parties involved. There can be no doubt from the silence of the council and City Manager following the disclosure of these statements on social media that the city fails to provide a safe, constructive working environment for its employees. It is ironic that conflict of interest is such a topic of interest, but that no one who was in the courtroom saw a conflict in the Mayor’s report to the court that Councilor Phedra Nelson, in her capacity as paid staff of the Emerson Family YMCA, has successfully requested the city to send specific “eye candy officers” to her workplace to fraternize with the YMCA staff on work time, and evidently has done so more than once. Meanwhile apparently “non eye candy” officers are expected to patrol and enforce laws in the city despite a severely short-staffed department.
There is no excuse for inaction. The City Council must act now to direct the Interim City Manager to commit to securing training immediately, on sexual harassment law and ensuring a safe, protected working environment. And the Council must ensure that all of its members are included in such training themselves, just as elected officials elsewhere take such training. Additionally, requests for specific officers to be provided “for training” must be addressed by the new Chief Troy Doyle in a manner that ensures that requests are not abusive uses of the city’s money and time, nor do they promote favoritism of certain officers over others by elected officials.