Two Wiccan Officers File Suit Against LAPD for Harassment

Heather Greene —  April 13, 2014 — 10 Comments

Over the past three weeks, two Wiccan Police Officers have filed suit against the City of Los Angeles in response to workplace discrimination. On March 26 Officer Victoria DeBellis filed her complaint charging the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) with “harassment, discrimination and retaliation” due to her “sex and religion.” One week later her husband Sgt. A.J. DeBellis filed a similar suit.

Both officers are veterans of the LAPD. Sgt. DeBellis joined the force in 1990 while his wife joined in 1996. During the time of the reported problems, the couple worked in entirely separate divisions. Sgt. A.J. DeBellis was stationed in Devonshire. Officer Victoria DeBellis worked in North Hollywood and was later transferred to West Valley.

downloadOfficer DeBellis’ story begins in March of 2011 with what she describes as “severe sexual harassment.”  During that time, an unnamed fellow officer made repeated inappropriate propositions and engaged in unwelcome physical touch.  After filing a complaint with Internal Affairs, she was granted a request to move departments. However the harassment only followed her from North Hollywood to West Valley.

According to the report, DeBellis endured another two years of sexual harassment at the hands of one particular officer, Thomas Tenney.  At first it was limited to sexual harassment. Tenney allegedly admitted to having a “dislike and disrespect for women, including his own wife, mother, in-laws, and several ex-female officers Tenney supposedly tried to have fired because of their incompetence.”  DeBellis claims that Tenny even bragged about hitting another female officer with a basketball.

Within a few months of transferring to West Valley, DeBellis became the target for Tenney’s abuse. For example, he allegedly would shoot her with rubber bands followed by “inappropriate sexual and gender comments.” She endured the harassment over the next year and throughout her pregnancy.

Upon returning from maternity leave, DeBellis claims that she was hit immediately with both Tenney’s harassment and departmental discrimination due to her decision to breast feed. She requested daily personal time as afforded her by the Police Department’s Lactation Accomodation Policy.  At first she was denied this request causing physical pain and “embarrassment.”  After some struggle, she was eventually given the time. Before one lactation break, DeBellis recalls Tenney making the offensive remark,  “Are you going to milk it?”

LAPD Police Cars [Photo Credit: Flickr's 888BailBond]

LAPD Police Cars [Photo Credit: Flickr’s 888BailBond]

In March 2013 Tenney discovered that DeBellis was a practicing Wiccan Priestess and a Buddhist. He allegedly said, “Woman can’t be Priests” and told her that she “could not switch religions.”  He also told her that she would “burn in hell” and allegedly warned other officers not to trust her. On one occasion Tenney hung a Blues Brothers poster near DeBellis’ work space. It read, “We are on a mission from God.”

In her filed complaint DeBellis describes the various ways in which she attempted to mitigate the situation. She met with superior officers, attended meetings, spoke with Internal Affairs, and repeatedly asked for assistance. DeBellis maintains that the Department did little to alleviate her problems and in some cases even made it worse.

DeBellis says that LAPD “denied her a work-environment free of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.”  As a result her “career has been materially and adversely affected, irreparably harmed and damaged by the conduct of the Defendants” including both the Department and a number of unnamed individuals.

A week after Officer DeBellis filed suit, her husband, Sgt. A.J. DeBellis filed his own complaint charging the LAPD with religious discrimination.  He specifically cites an incident that occurred in December of 2012.  His department held a mandatory training session at the Church of Rock Peak.  According to the report, the meeting included prayer and religious music. The filed complaint reads:

As a practicing Wiccan, (DeBellis) was deeply offended by the department’s decision to conduct the training session and holiday gathering at a religious facility and reasonably believed that the event violated the Establishment Clause and separation of church and state.

Over the next year, DeBellis became the target of further religious-based harassment which he believes was in retaliation for his initial internal complaint. On one occasion, someone placed a sign on his desk reading, “One Nation, Under God.”  In addition Sgt DeBellis states that he was forced into meetings without his lawyer and denied disability insurance and more.

The Los Angeles Police Department has declined to comment on either case at this time. However the Department does maintain strict policies regarding discrimination and harassment. These policies are publicly available for review on their website.

It is the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department that discrimination in the workplace on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

A Department employee may file a complaint on any action, procedure, practice, or condition of employment which the employee believes to be discriminatory on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, including sexual harassment; age…. [and more]

officers of avalonFollowing the case with interest is The Officers of Avalon, a nationally-based fraternal, educational, and charitable organization that provides community and networking for Pagan first responders and military. Currently the organization does “not have an official position regarding this issue as [they do] not know all the facts and circumstances surrounding this dispute.” However the organizers did say:

We stand in support of our fellow officers and hope that soon an understanding will be reached … While working in law enforcement, you must put your life in your co-workers hands and be able to trust that they will do all they can to get you home safe after your shift. You must also take the responsibility for their lives and safety. Trust is paramount, and there is no room for prejudice. No matter what sex, color, creed or religious calling, we all bleed blue.

Both cases are filed with the Superior Court of California, City of Los Angeles. The DeBellis’ and their attorney have declined comment. We will continue to follow this story as it develops.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.