New Castle County has settled a federal lawsuit brought by six current and former female county police officers against the department’s former second-highest ranking officer.
The plaintiffs include Capt. Laura O’Sullivan, Capt. Patricia Davies, Senior Cpl. Jessica Neipris, Ret. Master Cpl. Lynda Scelsi, Ret. Master Cpl. Margaret Ellwein, and Lori Kane.
Each officer alleged sexual harassment and misconduct by former County police officer Quinton Watson between 1996 and 2016.
The announcement of the settlement came shortly after the County Council unanimously approved two ordinances — one to allocate $1.7 million to “partially fund” the settlement and another to cover the county’s legal fees.
The legal fees will cost the county about $1.3 million. None of those funds will go toward Watson’s legal expenses.
A joint statement from the county and the six plaintiffs released after the council’s vote said the settlement was reached “as part of its effort to foster a welcoming, inclusive workplace.”
According to Delaware Online/The News Journal, to whom the six officers initially detailed Watson’s abuse, Watson “set workplace precedent and spawned a hostile environment of rampant sexual harassment, sexual assault, overt misogyny, and retaliation among female employees within the NCC government.”
The plaintiffs alleged that Watson “normalized the practice of preying on subordinate female employees which Defendant NCC covered up for years, allowing Defendant Watson, as an abuser, to thrive.”
Following The News Journal’s publication of the allegations, county officials instituted mandatory sexual harassment training and hired an outside law firm to review instances of workplace bias within the county government.
Following Tuesday’s announcement, the county said it will institute a phone line to allow employees to anonymously report workplace misconduct.
“When former Lt. Col. Watson’s past incidents of harassment were reported to [County Executive Matt] Meyer, he and Chief Administrative Officer Vanessa Phillips placed Watson on administrative leave and relieved him from duty,” the joint statement said. “Watson never worked another day as a New Castle County Police Officer. Ultimately, [the] Plaintiffs’ allegations were investigated and largely substantiated.”
“As a result of this litigation, Watson has surrendered his police certification issued through the Delaware Council on Police Training and he has further surrendered his New Castle County retiree credentials, which include his police retirement badge and police retirement identification card issued by New Castle County Police Department.”
The joint statement emphasized that none of Watson’s incidents of misconduct took place under Meyer’s administration and said the county remains committed to ensuring no such incident will occur in the future.
“There is no place in the County for harassment in any form, particularly when based on sex, race, age, disability, or any other protected category,” the statement said. “No individual should be expected to tolerate such conduct, and the County is grateful for these brave women that brought this disturbing conduct into the light, and applauds their courage.”
The county acknowledged that the plaintiffs endured abuse and apologized for the defendant’s “inappropriate conduct.” It promised to take steps to expand its policies and practices to prevent future inappropriate conduct in the workplace.
Those steps include revising its harassment and discrimination policies to ensure that all employees understand their rights and the process for addressing concerns. Also, in the coming weeks, the county will institute the complaint phone line and retain an “outside monitor” to ensure that complaints from employees are received and addressed appropriately.
The county will continue its bi-annual harassment-prevention training, which they say is “designed to help all employees understand the boundaries of appropriate workplace conduct, and what to do when those boundaries are crossed.”
In return, the plaintiffs acknowledged the county’s efforts to ensure its workplaces remain inclusive and respectful.
The ordinances related to the lawsuit, both sponsored by Councilman George Smiley, District 7, passed in the council after being introduced by title only. There was no discussion amongst council members.
One public commenter spoke on the ordinance to clarify that none of the money authorized would go toward Watson’s defense.
Ten council members voted in favor of the measures. Councilwoman Dee Durham voted present on both and Councilmen Penrose Hollins and Bill Bell were absent.
On Jan. 16, news blog First State Update shared screenshots of both ordinances after they were filed.
County council members did not respond to requests for comment then. Meyer’s spokesman said a statement was forthcoming.
The statement was released only after the County Council authorized the funds.
The Council did not give the public any advance notice that the settlement would be the subject of the ordinances and only offered additional comment during the meeting after the one public commenter asked a question.
The $1.7 million was allocated from the Tax Stabilization Reserve Account to “partially fund the settlement.”
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