For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has praised the #MeToo movement as a moment of national reckoning — and he has rarely missed a chance to let New Yorkers know where he stands.
Last fall, he called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to return campaign donations given to him by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer now infamous for decades’ worth of sexual assault allegations.
In January, he told reporters that President Trump should be investigated for accusations of sexual harassment, along with the New York State Senator Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat accused of sexual misconduct earlier this year.
That same month, he said private companies doing business with the city should disclose claims of sexual harassment against their employees. “Look, we’re in a very powerful moment in history and a lot of truth is coming out, and thank God for it,” he said in a news conference at the time.
As it turns out, Mr. de Blasio has a #MeToo problem much closer to home.
Data released by his administration last week shows that New York City doesn’t consistently track sexual harassment complaints across its 361,000-person work force. It has little or no information about how often those complaints lead to any discipline, or how long it takes the city to address the complaints. And until this month, it didn’t require city agencies to report sexual harassment complaints to City Hall in a uniform way.
Over the past four years, city employees filed 1,312 complaints, 221 of which were substantiated. The data suggests widespread variation in the way complaints are handled and tracked across agencies.
The New York City Housing Authority uses federal reporting rules to handle its sexual harassment complaints, for example, while many other agencies use city guidelines. Some agencies reported complaints by calendar year, while others did so by the city’s fiscal year, which ends in June, making it difficult to spot trends.
And some agencies seem to warrant closer scrutiny.
At the Department of Education, 570 complaints (a number city officials originally gave as 471) were filed over the past four years, but only seven were substantiated. At the Police Department, 94 sexual harassment complaints were made over roughly the same period, while 10 were substantiated.
It is not clear exactly what has happened to many of the complaints that have not been substantiated.
The mayor said he released the data as part of an overhaul of the city’s approach to sexual harassment. That’s good, because such an overhaul is sorely needed and well overdue.
But any suggestion that the mayor is leading on this issue is overblown. The sexual harassment figures were released last Friday at 4 p.m., a time when mayors looking to bury bad news have always found their best shot. The data was incomplete and confusing, leaving reporters scrambling to give the public clear information about how the city was handling complaints. And the city released the data only after months of hounding from reporters and after the City Council approved legislation this month requiring agencies to report sexual harassment complaints in a meaningful way. Though Mr. de Blasio is expected to sign the legislation, he hasn’t yet gotten around to doing so.
When the mayor finally took questions on the sexual harassment data, five days after it had been released, what he had to say caused many in the room to groan.
“I’ll say it gently, there has been a history, it is pretty well known inside the education world, of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment, this is about a whole host of potential infractions,” he said after Yoav Gonen, a reporter for The New York Post, had asked why so few complaints at the Department of Education had been substantiated.
When all is said and done, Mr. de Blasio may be correct that the Education Department is a special case. The agency has by far the largest number of employees. We were happy when Mr. de Blasio said this week that the city planned to hire 11 new employees to help the agency better address complaints and resolve them faster.
But think about it for a moment. The mayor, confronted with evidence showing that his administration had for years done nothing to address the city’s uneven handling of sexual harassment complaints, responded to the mere suggestion of criticism by saying some complaints may be overblown.
Later that day, Mr. de Blasio took to Twitter in the hopes of explaining just what he meant. “Let me be clear, every single person who has the courage to come forward with a sexual harassment complaint deserves to be believed,” he wrote.
The mayor could benefit from the sage advice of a woman by the name of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston well known for her work on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame.
If he does, Mr. de Blasio might save himself some trouble by trying out a new set of words, Ms. Brown’s signature prescription for companies and others who have failed the people they serve: “We’re sorry. We’ll fix it.”
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