If the allegations in a sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit against a Northern California police department are true, even the numerical code for a police station security gate had antigay significance.
In February three Roseville, Calif., police officers filed suit against the city of Roseville and its police department, alleging harassment based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. Observers say the charges are hardly exceptional in a profession historically hostile to minorities, women, and gays serving within the ranks.
Though only one of the officers in the suit self-identifies as gay, all three claim to have worked in a pervasively homophobic environment overseen by a police chief who has ignored the abuse — and has retaliated against those who have spoken out against it.
In a response to the complaint this week — and in subsequent comments to local media outlets — city officials slammed the suit as the result of unspecified personal agendas and categorically denied the allegations, which include a department captain setting a numerical gate code at the station to read “13-69” — a joke apparently meaning “unlucky cocksucker.”
“There’s just a culture of permissiveness. If somebody has an antigay ideology, they can and will say things that are really offensive, and they are never called on it,” says Darin DeFreece, a plaintiff in the case who oversees the department’s detectives unit. “So was I going to stick my head in the sand? I’ve never felt like I was the type of person who needs to champion a cause, but in this certain situation it was the right thing to do.”
DeFreece joined the department in 2000, was promoted to sergeant in 2005, and remains in his position. He said the harassment directed at him over the past several years has long been the result of questions regarding his own sexual orientation (DeFreece is married to a woman but describes his orientation as “fluid”) as well as his defense of a police scene technician who is not out at work but is known to have a partner who works in another police department.
The harassment became intolerable after co-plaintiff Kenneth Marler, a friend and colleague of DeFreece’s, joined the force in 2005 and immediately became a target. “I was in a workout room when a sergeant, who is a named defendant in this case, was complaining to a group of officers that we had a ‘fag’ coming to the department,” DeFreece says. “I was stunned. I had taken a few digs prior to that, but I could deal with it.”
The third plaintiff, Mike Lackl, was hired by the department in 2007 and lived with Marler for a few months after moving to Roseville from Florida. Though he is married and identifies as heterosexual, Lackl was the subject of constant antigay harassment from his direct supervisor and was ultimately reassigned to a “less desirable position,” according to the complaint. Lackl has since left the police department.
DeFreece claims he met with Roseville police chief Michael Blair in 2008 to discuss jokes and antigay remarks directed at him and the police scene technician, whose name has not been disclosed. Blair “took no actions except to send a generic e-mail to the department staff,” stating that there was “no tolerance for disparaging or insensitive comments,” according to the complaint.
The case was filed February 18 in Placer County superior court in Roseville by attorneys Paul Goyette and Joy Rosenquist. DeFreece’s brother, Darek, is also an attorney in the suit. “Clearly the [Roseville Police Department] doesn’t know how to inform and educate their own officers as to what it means to be a tolerant and discrimination-free workplace,” Darek DeFreece says. “These are the same officers whom we expect to go out into the community and exhibit high standards.”
City of Roseville spokeswoman Megan MacPherson did not return calls for comment as of press time, though she told the Roseville Press-Tribune in an article published Wednesday that “the plaintiffs have used the guise of sexual orientation discrimination to file a lawsuit that advances other personal agendas. And it’s been done at undue expense of all the dedicated members of the Roseville PD.” MacPherson did not specify what “other personal agendas” may be at play but said the city will make its case in the ensuing court proceedings.
Greg Miraglia, a police academy dean at Napa Valley College and author of Coming Out From Behind the Badge: Stories of Success and Advice From Police Officers “Out” on the Job, said the allegations are not unique — even in states like California with laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “A lot of departments are in denial that they have any gay officers to worry about, so they turn a blind eye to [harassment],” he says. “Law enforcement is a profession that has been 20 years behind society’s civil rights movement, but this is changing. As law enforcement recruits young people, they’re going to encounter men and women who are already out.”
Adam Bereki, a former detective with the Huntington Beach Police Department in Orange County, Calif., successfully sued the city in 2008 for upward of $2.5 million in damages after chronic harassment that included repeatedly being called a “faggot” and being asked if “[his] HIV has kicked in yet” by fellow officers who were not disciplined but in some cases promoted. “If I said something, I felt that my job would be over,” says Bereki, 30. “The department is very homophobic, very old-school. There are maybe one or two female cops in a force of 225. And nothing has changed.”
Why DeFreece has chosen to remain in the Roseville Police Department is not surprising to anyone who works in his field, he says.
“You don’t just leave law enforcement — it’s one of those jobs where it becomes a part of your life, and after you spend time at an organization you build up your internal résumé,” DeFreece says. “To me, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m an investigations sergeant, so for me to leave my organization and start over somewhere else as a patrol officer with no seniority — it’d be a huge hit. ... I have more money invested in my retirement and pension that I’d be eligible for in 10 years than this case would ever be worth. It’d make more financial sense for me to shut up.”