Wilton Manors Police Department Faces Discrimination Claims

In the dim light of South Florida's most famous gay hangout, two dozen men curl around the center bar to down two-for-one drinks on a Monday evening. Some are balding with graying hair. More rugged gents sport baseball caps. A few clean-shaven yuppies in suits scroll through social media feeds between sips from martini glasses. Clusters of friends catch up over onion rings and burgers. A male performer dressed as Dame Edna in a lilac wig and cat-eye glasses is scheduled to crack jokes onstage in the backroom later.

Everyone is welcome at Georgie's Alibi. Over the years, this spirit of acceptance has overflowed into the community of Wilton Manors, which has become a model of gay civil rights and the second-gayest city in America.

So when some patrons hear claims of anti-gay discrimination among those enforcing the law, they're outraged. "It's sad," says a poised middle-aged man with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair. He declines to give his name for fear of retaliation. "We end up paying for this harassment every year with our taxes."

"We end up paying for this harassment every year with our taxes."

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In the past three years, four openly gay officers have resigned from the 51-member Wilton Manors Police Department. Indeed, more than a dozen interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of documents over the past two months reveal multiple claims of a culture of abuse and homophobia that begins with higherups on the force. Words like "homo" and "faggot" are said to be casually thrown around the Wilton Drive headquarters. Superiors in unmarked cars follow gay patrolmen to intimidate them. Qualified gay officers say they have been passed up for promotions, and straight superiors inspire fear in gay subordinates.

When the Broward Sheriff's Office was called in to probe officers' claims, though, after 20 interviews it found "no competent evidence" that department policy had been violated. Despite scores of pages that detail intimidation and discrimination, investigators sided with those who denied it. "To date, there has not been one HR claim based on sexual orientation citywide," Wilton Manors human resources and risk management director Dio Sanchez said in a statement to New Times. "None [of the four gay officers who resigned] state discrimination during their time of employment, nor did any of the four file discrimination complaints with HR during the course of their employment."

Indeed, Sgt. Rick Shawver, who is the target of many of the claims, which were first made to human resources in 2013, is a decorated officer with more than 30 years of experience. After New Times left several messages and a letter for Shawver, he declined to comment: "Thank you for reaching out to me for a fair/balanced report. I am sorry."

Incorporated in 1947, Wilton Manors was for years a typical middle-class suburb. But when it succumbed to drugs and prostitution in the '90s, a man named George Kessinger ignited a decades-long movement. He transformed a dilapidated bank in a strip mall to a gay bar called Georgie's Alibi. Other gay-owned businesses followed, including clothing stores and coffee shops. Over the years, the city became a beacon for gay and lesbian people who could no longer afford South Beach and Key West.

For years, Wilton Manors has been a national leader in the gay civil rights movement. In 1988, the city elected Broward County's first openly gay official. By law, every city contract must now include an anti-discrimination clause for sexual orientation. The residents have elected a gay mayor, and three of their four commissioners are gay. The pride flag is permanently raised at Jaycee Park outside City Hall and the police department.

The 2010 U.S. Census revealed there are 140 same-sex couples per 1,000 households, the second-highest proportion in America after Provincetown, Massachusetts. When same-sex marriage was legalized last year, a mass wedding for 37 gay couples was held at City Hall. Wilton Manors was one of four cities in Florida to receive a perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign 2014 and 2015 Municipal Equality Index.

But if you believe the claims of Michael Della Volpe and others, the police department hasn't kept up. The openly gay Della Volpe has always wanted to help people. He owned a restaurant in New Jersey before moving in 2002 to Florida, where he met his longtime partner. He adopted two biracial siblings, a boy and girl. Della Volpe says he was never ashamed or self-conscious about his sexual orientation or biracial family until he accepted a position as a desk officer at the Wilton Manors Police Department in May 2007.

Soon after he began working, Della Volpe says, he was accused by superiors of looking up names from traffic tickets in a database "to find dates." (He claims he was simply double-checking the spelling.)

"It was homophobic," Della Volpe says. "I was in a long-term relationship, and I really didn't understand where it was coming from."

Then, in the background at work, Della Volpe claims he overheard officers drop the N-word and use slurs such as "faggot" and "homo."

"They knew I was in a biracial [gay] relationship and had biracial children," Della Volpe explains. "I wasn't going to say anything because I would lose my job. That's how the good ol' boys are."

Della Volpe contends the abuse trickled down from Sergeant Shawver, who has worked at the department since 1990 and before that at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Shawver's 30-year career seems unimpeachable. The burly, white-haired officer has rescued a woman from a burning building and helped a single mother bring her home up to code and avoid fines by recruiting officers to volunteer their time. This past January, he was named Officer of the Year after fatally shooting a mentally unstable man who had barricaded himself in a bathroom with a hostage and then aimed a weapon at officers.

But Della Volpe contends Shawver bullied him. The sergeant allegedly admonished Della Volpe for taking too long to answer a call over the radio and for being a few minutes late to work from his home in the next county. "He'd say, 'Your attitude is not good,'?" Della Volpe recalls. "I just couldn't stand the constant pressure from him."

Della Volpe claims Shawver didn't similarly discipline straight officers. And Della Volpe says that when three openly gay officers were hired within a short span in 2013, the abuse worsened.

"So many gay officers were coming in all of a sudden," he says. "It was like they feared a takeover or that we'd ruin their good-ol'-boy image."

Jeffrey Fetter, a sarcastic, tell-it-how-it-is kind of man, was one of those hires. He, like Della Volpe, has always been open about his sexual orientation. Working in law enforcement didn't change that fact, even after a lieutenant at another police department made slurs about officers' race and sexual orientation, he says. Fetter thought that kind of harassment was over when he transferred to Wilton Manors Police in 2013.

Fetter moved with his partner to an apartment that overlooked the clubs and stores on Wilton Drive. At work, Fetter befriended two other gay officers. Within months, he says, they all noticed they were being disciplined more harshly than their straight colleagues. The three of them would regularly meet outside Fetter's apartment and swap stories.

They wondered if they were just being paranoid. Then one of them, Officer Jason Bell, quit in December 2013 after just six months. He told a BSO investigator he believed that he was being passed up for promotions and that less qualified straight colleagues were getting the jobs. Once, he said, two straight officers teased him by smacking each other on the back in front of him and saying, "What? Are you trying to excite me?" In a resignation letter, he wrote, "I addressed these issues through the 'Chain of Command' and have had no success... I hope my departure will create changes that make for a more professional environment for ALL employees."

Fetter stayed. He contends Sergeant Shawver followed him around in an unmarked navy Ford Explorer. One night in 2013, he says, the sergeant confronted him in the police department parking lot and yelled, "You people don't want me to use my stripes!" (Fetter contends "you people" was referring to gay officers.) Another time, Fetter says, he was offended when Shawver allegedly said he didn't like working the Gay Pride Festival "because it's a bunch of gays; they are disrespectful."

After his friend Bell resigned, Fetter met with the human resources office and Wilton Manors Police Chief Paul O'Connell. He says he told them about the unequal treatment of gay officers in the department.

O'Connell then recommended the city contact the Broward Sheriff's Office, which began an investigation in January 2014. The city hoped this investigation by outside parties would provide "transparency." In his interview with the investigator, Fetter said one sergeant had called him "a rat" and "a weak person because he was gay." Later, he added, "They do it by intimidation... They won't talk to you. They will deny all your reports. They will make you feel stupid."

But two months later, as the investigation dragged on, Fetter quit and packed his bags for Michigan, where he took another law enforcement job. "My only regret was not staying and fighting," Fetter says. "I started a fight and didn't finish it. I wonder if I fought a little bit harder, if things would be easier [for gay officers] now."

The final report is replete with complaints about Shawver and others. The sergeant "follows [gay officers] around in a marked car," Fetter is quoted as saying. He "threatens [gay officers]," and superiors "do it by intimidation." The officer added that higherups "will deny all [gay officers'] reports." Bell added that they make gay officers "correct or change reports for no apparent reason." A lesbian officer said she had heard another sergeant refer to gay civilians as "homos."

During the probe, Shawver denied harassing or discriminating against any employee. He said he was "surprised" to hear about the allegations and did not consider himself a bully. He told the investigator that he believes Fetter came forward "to score a couple dollars on his way out the door from the City of Wilton Manors, and I'm probably — I just don't know why he picked me."

He wasn't sleeping through the night and was losing weight from stress.

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Ten straight officers and one gay police sergeant testified they had never witnessed any harassment or discrimination from Shawver. In April 2014, the investigation was closed because of "no competent evidence." Officers are required to take mandatory sensitivity and diversity training every year. Since the investigation, the city has expanded its training to include new programming by SunServe, a South Florida nonprofit offering social services for the LGBTQ community.

But Della Volpe, who became a police service aide and evidence specialist, says the probe was flawed. He wasn't even interviewed. "I feel like they knew I was going to say something," he says. "That's when I knew [the investigation] was hopeless."

In May 2014, a month after the investigation was completed, a lesbian officer, Paula Walls, quit and moved to California. She declined to participate in the investigation and told the investigator that she "had vented in the past but that she was not complaining." Three straight officers and the human resources director, Dio Sanchez, told investigators that Walls had "concerns" about her supervisor, Rick Shawver. (Walls did not respond to a phone call or text message seeking comment for this story.)

Della Volpe held out for another year. By then, he says, he wasn't sleeping through the night and was losing weight from stress. He resigned in August 2015.

There are still a few gay officers on the force. Sgt. Frank Pilewski, who was formerly closeted, said he was never harassed and, when his partner died, was even sent a sympathy card. Pilewski told the BSO investigator: "[I am treated] amazing. I was a closeted law enforcement officer in Jersey, and the reason I moved down here was because of the lifestyle."

But another officer, who requested anonymity, says gay officers are treated differently from straight ones. "There's no denying it... It's deliberate," the officer says. "They'll just keep grinding on [gay officers] until they give up and quit."

A final important question is whether discord on the force has affected how police deal with the largely gay populace. During a recent visit to Georgie's Alibi, many patrons praised police work, but four claimed homophobia. An 18-year Wilton Manors resident with slicked-back hair, who asked not to be named, pursed his lips and shook his head. "I've experienced it myself. They harassed me," he said, referring to a domestic violence incident several years ago. "I know firsthand that there's tension between residents and police. It's just sad that it's in this city."

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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson