Martin Vassolo and Charles Rabin
When his officers raised concerns about catching the coronavirus, a South Florida police chief tried minimizing their worries by claiming a Broward County deputy’s COVID-19 death was caused by his “homosexual” lifestyle, the officers alleged.
Chief Dale Engle, the head of the Town of Davie’s police department, made the remarks during an angry tirade against the officers after a patrol briefing on April 7, according to a complaint filed to town administration by a state police union that represents the officers.
Engle was placed on administrative leave Saturday evening “pending further review of allegations,” the town administration said in a statement.
The remarks allegedly came four days after BSO Deputy Shannon Bennet, a 12-year veteran at the sheriff’s office, died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“Chief Engle allegedly yelled about a ‘backstory’ which proclaimed that Deputy Bennett contracted and died from the virus because he was a ‘homosexual who attended homosexual sexual events,” reads a letter sent to Davie administrator Richard Lemack from the Florida State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council Committee. “He intimated that it was because of the homosexual lifestyle that Deputy Bennett first contracted a serious underlying disease which aggravated the Covid-19 virus and lead to his death.”
The officers claim Engle tried to intimidate them by forcing them to line up like they were in the police academy and undergo an inspection. In its letter to the town administration, the Fraternal Order of Police asked that Engle’s actions be investigated.
Officers had raised concerns about what their healthcare plans would cover if they contracted COVID-19, said Michael Tucker, the chief of staff for the Fraternal Order of Police.
“Multiple officers expressed shock at the way that the chief not only conducted the briefing but obviously of his remarks, which left most of the officers speechless,” he said. “Really utter shock that the chief would attempt to minimize the risk to everyone and especially first responders by trying to draw a link between what happened to Deputy Bennett tragically and his sexual orientation.”
Engle later sent an email to the officers saying he meant no offense by what he said.
“I made comments concerning the death of BSO Deputy Bennett as reported in the local media. These comments were relative to COVID-19 and personal protective equipment,” Engle wrote. “My intent was to provide as much information to personnel as possible. If my comments were taken out of context, they were not intended to be derogatory.”
Tommy Reyes, the president of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police — and a personal friend of Bennett — called Engle’s alleged comments about Bennett “disrespectful.”
“Shannon was my friend, a good man, and he loved his family, friends and his soon to be husband,” Reyes said. “Chief Engle’s comments are disrespectful not only to Shannon, but everyone who loved him.”
Bennett was 39 and a member of the LGBTQ community and had announced he was to marry in December. He contracted the virus while “in the line of duty,” BSO Sheriff Gregory Tony said, and had been in the care of a local hospital since March 27.
“It was disrespectful to the entire LGBTQ community and his own officers,” Reyes continued. “He should be ashamed of himself for his lack of professionalism and compassion for others.”
Engle did not respond to an email requesting comment for this article. Davie’s mayor, board of commissioners nor Lemack could be reached for comment.
Orlando Gonzales, the executive director of the South Florida LGBTQ organization SAVE, told the Herald in a statement that Engle made the decision to “fuel discrimination and stigma against LGBT people instead of focusing on addressing the health and safety of the police officers serving on the front line of a public health crisis.”
“Chief Engle’s approach to addressing the safety concerns of the police officers that serve under his command is exemplary of someone that is unfit for the Chief of Police role,” Gonzalez said. “It’s clear that the actions he takes and speaks are homophobic and toxic for the workplace. We have learned that the coronavirus does not discriminate who is infected and Chief Engle chose to make the death of BSO Deputy Shannon Bennett an opportunity for him to fuel discrimination and stigma against LGBT people instead of focusing on addressing the health and safety of the police officers serving on the front-line of a public heath crisis. His leadership and priorities are misaligned for a person in public safety.”
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