South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Pointed questions are swirling over the swift termination of Larry Scirotto, an outsider from Pittsburgh fired amid allegations of reverse discrimination after just six months as chief of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
Scirotto, the son of a white mother and Black father and the department’s first gay chief, was held in high regard by some who saw him as a dynamic and charismatic leader charged with bringing long-awaited change to an agency mired in use-of-force complaints.
Now experts say the city is facing a legal quagmire, with potential lawsuits from both Scirotto and at least four officers claiming discrimination. The waters got even more muddy on Friday, when the city auditor released a report accusing Scirotto of working a second job as a referee for the NCAA while on the city clock — a claim Scirotto dismisses as false.
Eugene O’Donnell, a law professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Now York, questioned whether Fort Lauderdale made the right choice in making an outside hire who spent his career far away in Pittsburgh. The fact that Scirotto was moonlighting as a college basketball referee didn’t help, he said.
“You’re parachuting someone in from the outside,” O’Donnell said. “They need a person with gravitas in that job. Bringing someone in who’s a stranger to the organization is really a challenge. You’re dealing with people who’ve spent decades there. Even a saintly outsider faces a lot of land mines in a police agency. You’re in a shark tank. An outsider has to be purer than Ceasar’s wife and above reproach.”
Scirotto, 48, was let go Thursday afternoon, six days after a report was sent to City Hall by an outside attorney who investigated claims the chief was making promotions based on race, gender or sexual orientation. The attorney, former prosecutor Gregg Rossman, was hired to handle the inquiry a month after three white officers and one Hispanic officer filed complaints in October with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with investigating workplace discrimination.
Scirotto’s supporters are asking just what he did wrong.
On Friday, Scirotto said he was wondering the same thing. The way he sees it, he got fired for promoting diversity.
“If I die on the hill for promoting diversity, as I was charged by the city manager to do from the day I was hired, then I will sleep well at night,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Management made it clear they were pushing for diversity in every division, including the police department, Scirotto said.
In the weeks after he was hired, Scirotto says he promoted 15 cops. Nine were white men. The other six were all minorities through ethnicity or gender.
Four people who were not chosen for promotions — three men and one woman — filed EEOC complaints.
“There would have been 12 white men, one white woman and two minorities if I had promoted as the complainants say I should have,” Scirotto said. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What would the optics have been on that?”
City Manager Chris Lagerbloom, the man who hired Scirotto in mid-August and sent him on his way six months later, had little to say Friday.
Mayor Dean Trantalis and others on the city commission say they too have been cautioned by the city attorney to be careful about what they say regarding the chief’s termination.
That did not keep Trantalis from speaking.
“I’m very concerned about this report’s findings and conclusions,” he said. “I believe we owe it to the community to get to the bottom of what happened here. We have a chief who was hired to make changes — and clearly changes don’t sit well within the department. The chief comes in and does exactly what he was asked to do.”
Outrage over chief’s firing
Trantalis said he thought the chief should have the chance to respond to the allegations before being fired. Scirotto was outspoken about endeavoring to create a more diverse police department that mirrors the community, the mayor said.
“So we should only discriminate on the sly?” Trantalis said. “I’ve gotten outrage from everybody. White, Black. Everybody.”
Vice Mayor Heather Moraitis offered a different perspective.
“Based on the report by Gregg Rossman and the allegations on how [the chief] promoted people, I feel the city manager did the right thing by firing the chief,” she said. “I support hiring and promoting individuals based on merit and performance and not any other criteria.”
Rossman could not be reached for comment.
Several others declined to comment or did not return calls, including the union president, police department legal advisor Brad Weissman and several community activists who are normally quite vocal about the goings on at City Hall.
But some did agree to speak off the record. One supporter described Scirotto’s takedown as a “f—— hit job.”
That resident had not read Rossman’s 13-page report, which roundly supports the claims against Scirotto.
Rossman’s report, dated Feb. 25, was not released to the Sun Sentinel until Thursday afternoon, the day of Scirotto’s firing.
According to the report, the chief, on more than one occasion, pointed to a wall in his conference room with photos of the department’s command staff and said, “That wall is too white” and “I’m gonna change that.”
Rossman also wrote that the chief admitted to making several statements about “The wall being too white” and not reflecting the community.
Rossman’s report cites the EEOC reference manual, which provides hypothetical examples of discrimination: “For example, a statement that there are ‘too many Asians’ in a department, made by a hiring official when discussing applicants, would be strong evidence supporting an Asian American’s failure-to-hire claim. Such a statement also would support a claim of hostile work environment by Asian American employees.”
Tonja Haddad Coleman, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing all four officers who filed complaints with the EEOC, says every single one of her clients deserved to be promoted.
“They were all more than qualified, including the straight white female,” Coleman said. “He violated state and federal law. I applaud diversity. But white people also can be discriminated against.”
‘Hire the best person’
Longtime resident Chris Williams, who is friends with some of the department’s officers, spoke openly about the gripes he’d been hearing about Scirotto.
“The rank and file wasn’t behind him at all, from day one. They just had a bad vibe about the guy,” said Williams, president of the Coral Ridge Homeowners Association. “All I can tell you is that the police force is doing cartwheels right now.”
Williams said he is no fan of affirmative action, a set of policies and practices in the public and private sector that promote diversity-hiring practices.
“Let’s hire the best person,” Williams said. “Who cares if they’re purple or green.”
The law says you have to treat everyone equally, regardless of race or gender, says Brian Lerner, a labor attorney based in Fort Lauderdale.
“There is an exception under affirmative action that can justify making a hiring decision based on race,” Lerner said. “But you can’t say, ‘I’m only going to pick the Hispanic candidate or the woman or the man.’ That, by default, is illegal. You can’t pick someone because of their race, their gender, their religion.”
‘White men on the wall’
Some experts, speaking off the record, acknowledged it’s best not to broadcast your intentions when making hires and promotions — otherwise you might be accused of discrimination on both sides.
Laws addressing employment discrimination in this country are highly nuanced and complex, said Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University.
After decades of systemic racism, the nation embraced affirmative action in the 1960s in an attempt to level the playing field, Jarvis said.
Affirmative action aims to “overcome the effects of past or present practices … or other barriers to equal employment opportunity,” according to the EEOC. But under the law, each job candidate must compete against all other qualified candidates, and quotas, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978, remain illegal.
And that’s what might have put Scirotto in the spotlight, Jarvis said.
“He was saying, ‘I don’t like the fact that there are white men on the wall,’ so he’s going to change it,” Jarvis said. “He’s not looking at them as people. He’s looking at them based on skin color. Just because we have had white men promoted in the past, it does not mean we flip the switch and go the other way. His statement was a clear statement of reverse discrimination.”
Scirotto defends his promotional choices and the process that led him there.
“It was clear in the messaging that diversity was a mandate for the new police chief,” he said Friday, the day after he learned of his dismissal. “It’s a mixed message. You say you want it until you have a leader that has spoken openly about diversity. And to suggest that you ended up with an unqualified candidate who is a minority is inaccurate and detrimental to the entire organization.”
Now some are asking what message the chief’s termination sends about Fort Lauderdale’s claim that the city has committed to the goal of creating a diverse workforce.
Lagerbloom declined to answer that question until he consulted with City Attorney Alain Boileau. He later sent a carefully worded response: “The city of Fort Lauderdale fully supports and remains committed to diversity in all forms, including but not limited to, in the context of employment, opportunities and services. However, the goal and advancement of diversity must always occur without discrimination, and by ensuring fairness and the equal treatment, opportunity and consideration of all individuals, regardless and without consideration of, gender, race, color, age, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.”
‘What the hell?’
But Commissioner Steve Glassman says he still has many questions and serious concerns about what transpired, and says he is waiting to hear more from the city manager.
“I don’t think it sends any message until we have all of the facts and all of the information,” Glassman said. “We are hiring a diversity officer, for crying out loud. That shows our commitment to diversity. If diversity is our goal, how could our chief be fired for wanting more diversity in our command positions? Many people are wondering, ‘What the hell?’”
Some promotions made under Scirotto’s watch will not necessarily be rescinded, Lagerbloom said. But it’s a possibility.
“I do believe we have to redo the process,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a redo of the promotional process and get HR involved to make sure it’s fair. There were several promotions that were affected. I don’t know how many.”
Again, Scirotto doubled down.
“Every person I promoted was beyond qualified — including the nine white men,” he said. “The people that were promoted that were of minority status were beyond qualified. The people that were not selected were not qualified to sit in those positions. The people who were selected were very qualified. And they just happened to be of minority status.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan