LOS ANGELES – It didn’t matter whether Jay Brome called for backup during high-speed stolen car pursuits, intense vehicle impoundments or hit-and-run investigations. His fellow officers at the California Highway Patrol would not respond even when situations required him to hold his gun out, putting his life at risk.
They made him feel unsafe at work in other ways, too, Brome recalls. Some officers tied hangers in the shape of penises around his locker. They routinely flung homophobic slurs and once carved his name off an award plaque.
Brome says the dangerous workplace environment began years ago, when he was attending highway patrol academy and a fellow cadet held a gun to his head.
“I know you are gay,” the cadet said, according to Brome. “Tell me you are gay and I will pull the trigger.”
Brome filed numerous internal complaints, but nothing happened. Supervisors allowed the hostile treatment to continue, Brome surmised, because he was a gay man. In 2016, Brome sued the California Highway Patrol for 20 years of alleged discrimination and harassment.
“They refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem and they refuse to do anything about it,” said Brome, of Vallejo, California.
Brome’s story is part of a wave of lawsuits alleging anti-gay workplace discrimination filed by gay officers against law-enforcement departments across the U.S. in recent years. The lawsuits describe abusive work environments, where being gay or lesbian often meant cruel taunts, hostile work conditions and limited career opportunities. Some officers said they faced different work standards, while others claimed administrators passed them over for promotion or denied them protection — all because of their sexual orientation.
In all, there were at least 11 such lawsuits filed since 2016, according to a review conducted by USA TODAY of public records and media reports. Experts on law enforcement and civil-rights activists noted that the problem of LGBT officers feeling unsafe at work isn’t new, but some officers are now heading to the courts to demand accountability after years of internal complaints that were often ignored.
“Usually when there’s a lawsuit, a lot of things have been exhausted to get to that point,” said Roddrick Colvin, a public-affairs associate professor at San Diego State University. “So we get a very, very narrow band of cases that actually make it to the courts.”
Jay Brome 2018 Lawsuit on Scribd:
Many departments refused to comment on the pending litigation and it’s unclear what really happened on the job. But the lawsuits all paint the same picture of an intolerant law-enforcement system that can treat its own people with little regard.
‘The command staff has a problem with your sexuality’
In New Jersey, Andrew Kara sued the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office for sexual harassment, sexual orientation discrimination and wrongful termination in 2017. Officers and supervisors allegedly mocked Kara in person and in work texting groups because he is gay. He endured slurs and questions about whether he had any “AIDS medicine.” Once, the lawsuit states, a sergeant mocked Kara’s sexual preference by insinuating that Kara had “choked on a thing or two in his lifetime,” as he simulated oral sex.
Kara did not comment on the pending case, nor did the sheriff’s office. The office requires all employees take annual training on its anti-harassment and discrimination policy, spokesperson Derek Sands said. He added the agency complies with state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
In Missouri, Sgt. Keith Wildhaber of the St. Louis County Police has a trial scheduled this April two years after filing his lawsuit. He alleged the agency denied him multiple promotions despite his qualifications.
“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” a police commissioners board member allegedly told him. “If you ever want to see a white shirt [get a promotion], you should tone down your gayness.”
Wildhaber said he has participated in two promotional processes since filing, but still has not been promoted. The St. Louis County Police and County Counselor’s Office declined to comment on the pending case or its policies.
“It’s been a rough two years,” Wildhaber said.
The Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, that focuses on public policy, tracked lawsuits involving LGBT officers from 2000 to 2013, the biggest study of its kind. It found lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender officers and applicants filed 48 court cases during that time period.
‘I was devastated’
Officers who filed lawsuits said they worried not just about their career, but also their mental and physical health.
The homophobic harassment Brome said he first faced in the academy continued at three different San Francisco Bay Area departments throughout his career until 2015, when his doctor advised him to take medical stress leave because of the discrimination’s toll. Doctors diagnosed him with anxiety, depression and PTSD, Brome said, and the stress provoked constant headaches and stomach problems.
As he awaits the California Highway Patrol’s response to his 2018 brief, which is an appeal to a court dismissal of his 2016 lawsuit on the grounds he waited too long to file, Brome said he wants accountability and financial compensation for lost wages.
The agency has an internal process to resolve complaints, spokesperson Fran Clader said, and providing equal employment opportunity is department policy. Clader said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
In New Jersey, Sharon Papp left a job she loved at the Princeton Police Department in 2015, two years after filing for sexual orientation and gender discrimination, as well as sexual harassment. Papp, a lesbian, said the litigation barred her from possible promotions. By then, Papp had clocked in 22 years in that New Jersey agency, and nearly six years serving elsewhere.
“I hit a dead end and I was devastated,” she said.
Papp said her police chief at the time, David Dudeck, grabbed and shook his genitals on multiple occasions in front of Papp and other officers, some of whom joined her lawsuit against the department. The former chief also called male officers “p—y” to degrade them, Papp said, disrespecting women, too.
Another time, when Papp was on vacation in Rhode Island with her wife, Dudeck asked a subordinate officer, “Do you think she’s going up there and eating p—-?” while making a “v” with his fingers and putting his tongue out, according to a deposition.
In another instance, Papp alleges Dudeck said he would assign an investigation into a sexual assault involving two men, to “the best d— sucking detective.”
“My biggest stressor was not the job itself, but it was from the chief of police,” Papp told USA TODAY. “Really, in this situation, I felt powerless.”
Her anxiety sometimes manifested as muscle tension, high blood pressure and diarrhea.
Along with her colleagues, Papp brought a complaint to their police union in February 2013. The complaint then went to the mayor, City Council and business administrator. But none of the officials spoke to them, Papp said, so they filed the lawsuit a couple months later to seek accountability. The trail was scheduled for Feb. 4, when Papp settled for $1.3 million.
Dudeck retired in 2013 and admitted to a list of discriminatory actions, according to a court document.
Current Chief of Police Nicholas Sutter said the department strives to maintain an inclusive environment and treat all with dignity and respect.
“The Princeton Police department has worked to move the department culture in a direction that concentrates on the wellness of our employees and the tenants of service oriented policing that benefits our residents,” Sutter said. “Our recruitment and promotional processes have successfully identified officers that epitomize the backgrounds, professionalism, honor, knowledge, integrity and ideals of service that our community deserves and our department strives to represent.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
The public is only now learning more about discrimination against LGBT police officers in part because of recent legal changes that allow them to come forward and demand justice, researchers and activists say.
Few gay and lesbian officers sued their departments in the 1980s and ’90s, said Colvin, who has researched lesbian and gay police. But as more officers came out and local and state governments adopted public employment protections, lawsuits have increased, Colvin said.
Most state, county and local law-enforcement departments require officers to submit discrimination claims at their respective level of government, Colvin said, sometimes through a union or human-relations commissions. Claims may be resolved internally or through negotiation or arbitration.
Others facing employment discrimination may leave departments or policing in general, Colvin said. Officers can also miss deadlines for filing complaints or decide to put up with homophobic talk to get along with co-workers.
Law enforcement officers who do decide to sue for anti-LGBT discrimination have legal grounds, said Greg Nevins, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBT rights. Federal courts recognize protection for public LGBT employees under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment also protects public LGBT employees, especially in claims of irrational sexual-orientation discrimination, Nevins said.
Police may also be able to cite state statutes, local ordinances and collective bargaining provisions prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, Nevins said.
As the legal system continues to adopt more progressive stances on workplace discrimination, lawsuits by other minority groups such as women likewise have also trended upward, Colvin said, as people are more willing to come forward.
A long history of abuse against LGBT people
Many law-enforcement agencies have mistreated the LGBT community, so it’s not entirely surprising that some officers harass their gay co-workers, said Chicago-based police-misconduct attorney Andrea Ritchie, the author of the Amnesty International report “Stonewalled: Police Abuse And Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual And Transgender People In The U.S.”
Police departments in the U.S. have a long history of cracking down on same-sex sexual activities, arresting gender nonconforming people in public spaces and raiding LGBT establishments. The police raid at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969 was a flash point, Ritchie said, but police targeted LGBT gathering places such as bars and bathhouses as early as the 1920s.
“There’s very little nuance in terms of how they treat people who are sitting next to them in the car, who they perceive to be part of a particular community, versus how they treat people outside of the car,” Ritchie said.
Julie Callahan witnessed police discrimination for most of her nearly 40 years in law enforcement. She says her police colleagues sometimes stopped transgender people just because they were trans. Then, in 1998, she became the first officer at the San Jose Police Department in California to come out as transgender and later in 2001 to transition on the job.
After she came out, she said supervisors gave her negative feedback about her “lifestyle.” Callahan said coworkers broke into her desk, stole her Palm Pilot with all her contacts and left a note with the word “f—-t.”
One officer in the department was especially vocal about his anti-LGBT attitudes. When Callahan got off work at 3 a.m. one night and walked to her personal car in civilian clothes, she said that officer jumped out from behind a pillar and physically attacked her, using transphobic and homophobic slurs.
She told a commanding officer about the incident that can now be considered a hate crime, but Callahan said she did not submit a crime report. The San Jose Police Department did develop a transgender officer policy while she worked there, Callahan said, making it one of the first nation to do so.
“I know that transgender officers will have a very different experience in our department today than what Julie experienced,” said James Gonzalez, the department LGBTQ community liaison officer. “Today, we are actively recruiting from the LGBTQ community and our chief regularly convenes an LGBTQ advisory board that is constantly working to make SJPD a more inclusive place to work and serve.”
Callahan has since retired honorably from the agency, but she said former co-workers still intentionally misgender her online and at regional meetings in her capacity as a district attorney investigator.
Since founding and running the support group Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs International, Callahan said she has heard from dozens of officers across the country who lost their jobs after coming out as transgender to their administrators.
“You will have this employee who’s an exemplary employee by all written accounts and personal accounts before their transition,” Callahan said. “But after they transition they can do no right. And they get written up and written up and even though the accusations, and the behaviors described are contrived, the officer has been fired.”
But while police previously may have previously lacked connections with gay people, Colvin said coworkers or patrol partners coming out can sometimes change dynamics for the better. Meanwhile, LGBT police associations, such as the Gay Officers Action League chapters, can uplift LGBT officers by providing mentorship and community.
In recent years, some police departments have set out to hire LGBT police officers and provide LGBT training to their staffs, some to avoid messy public lawsuits or because they were required by the courts, and some to embrace inclusivity.
LGBT awareness training can improve how police treat members of the community inside and outside agencies, said Greg Miraglia, president of Out to Protect, an organization supporting LGBT law enforcement officers. With help from others, including San Jose’s police chief, he wrote a California law — effective this year — that requires LGBT training for law enforcement and 911 operators.
“The law requiring training very much is in response to a fairly long history of discrimination and harassment in law enforcement,” Miraglia said. “And the good news is we’re going to start dealing with it, but it’s not gonna change overnight.”
Thriving after a lawsuit
In some cases, officers were able to survive the public scrutiny that comes with suing their police department — and even continue advocating for LGBT people.
Officer Davin Clemons filed suit in 2016 for the sexual orientation discrimination he says he endured at the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee.
When he got engaged, Clemons said his colleagues mocked him. No one ever showered in the police department’s bathroom while he did, Clemons said, because he is gay.
Supervisors allegedly expressed displeasure about the attention Clemons brought to the unit as department LGBTQ liaison. They held him to a different standard, including assigning him mandatory overtime and unfairly disciplining him for a driving accident in inclement weather, his lawsuit alleges.
His close-knit, elite law-enforcement unit prized hypermasculinity, A-type personalities and conformity, Clemons said. And as a black, gay man with groomed eyebrows and manicured fingernails, he was different.
“Anybody who doesn’t fit is an outsider,” Clemons said.
Clemons filed internal complaints, charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and eventually his lawsuit citing Memphis’s 2014 anti-discrimination ordinance. The city denied his claims and began settling in 2017, agreeing to increase LGBT sensitivity training. The Memphis Police Department declined to comment on Clemons’ lawsuit.
The police department has actively participated since 2016 in the city’s efforts to make Memphis a more inclusive workplace, said Alexandria Smith, the city’s chief human-resources officer. Today, Memphis has an LGBTQ employee resource group and also recruits officers at Pride fairs.
“We really want to open our doors to a variety of individuals to come and work for us,” Smith said.