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.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • WAH

    ACAB

  • Linda Moore

    Yeah, sometimes i have to “eat it” at work or be discriminated against.I feel my religion is nobody’s business unless I want it to be. I hope they win this!

  • Shayna Orsen

    I’ve worked 911 for eleven years. I’m a street Paramedic with Fire training and experience, I’m also a TacMedic for our county SWAT team. I’ve been out if the “broom closet” since day one. I’ve never had a negative experience at work related to my choice of beliefs. Sure we all jest, but its across the board. I’ve held hands to say grace at the dinner table, and many times my peers have observed my practice while on shift. Have to face the facts, I dont always get holidays off… When you spend so much time with these people they become family. Families respect and share. Maybe I’ve been very lucky…

    • Tina Shaw

      Quite frankly? You HAVE been lucky. I don’t think anyone expects to get all their holidays off, but most of the “other” faith emergency service folks I know don’t have it as nice as you, and I never did, either… even though I kept my faith fairly under wraps to minimize the potential issues.

      • Shayna Orsen

        I’m so sorry that anyone has such a hard time. It’s just not right! And I’m very grateful to be so lucky! If anyone has an issue they’ve never told me. It’s frustrating knowing in this age of reason that there is no reason. I wear a Goddess charm as a necklace everyday, I hardly ever take it off. Patients, Supervisors, Public, and Coworkers have all noticed it. I’ve been asked what it was, and I’ve freely explained, never once has someone expressed dislike or discomfort about it. Maybe y’all should just move down here! Oh! And I’m in the Lowcountry of SC. This is the Bible Belt too.

  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    There has been almost a culture of inappropriate behavior within the LAPD for decades–and it covers what they do out in the field as much as in office settings. I don’t know what it would take to change that, but I hope that it will be rectified in the next ten or so years.

    Shayna, you’re lucky to work with such a wonderful group of folks. They have the proper attitude about respecting their peers and doing the work with the attitude that shows you all work together in concert.

    The first two jobs I had up here–and the volunteer position I had before that–they knew I was Wiccan. Also, my immediate boss knew, at the jobs, that I was bipolar and on meds. I’d known my first boss for years online and finally IRL, so she knew a lot about me, aside from how I might function in the office. My second boss had a relative or a connection who was bipolar, and had no problems with that. [There was an abolutely brilliant woman there who was likely between bipolar I and schizo-affective disorder. She managed her worklife with a great amount of flexibility, and no one was worried about her behavior in the office. At one point, there was another bipolar, male, making the office one-third bipolar.] He was a bit curious about my belief system, but he was respectful in questions and reactions.

    Maybe I’m lucky, or maybe it’s the environment in the Bay Area, with all the diverse sorts living here.

  • Josh

    Guess I’m lucky. People at work have seen my pentacle when it’s slipped from hiding on my over shirt. They haven’t said anything, nor have they treated me differently. Haven’t even asked actually.

    So they either mistake it for the Star of David or don’t really care. Those who are friends on my FB probably have a general idea, and I do have a paper pentagram I made on my desk.

    Then again, the company I work for has zero tolerance for discrimination. I could have a small section of my desk dedicated to one of the gods or goddesses, and it’d be allowed. Granted it’s not a distraction. e.g. incense or a gong going off. lol

  • Josh

    Follow up to my post – sorry, posted it too fast.

    I live in NE FL – part of the Bible belt.

  • Jamie

    Well I am not surprised – I was a crime scene investigator with the Denver Police Department when I was told by the lab director to keep “it behind the curtain – we don’t want to look like we hired a psychic to solve crime.” This in response to my Linkedin page where I listed my work history as a ordained minister and Reiki practitioner. The director was a professional contact on my page – three years prior to my being hired as a CSI. Then after I’m hired, it’s brought to my attention that this is “embarrassing” to the lab and I was told to delete my page and keep it all “behind the curtain.” Harassment goes on all the time in the para military and women come under fire quite often. All I can say is Karma will come back around for the harassers – it always does.

  • Wiccanwolf

    It is time as Wiccans we demand proper treatment. I have discovered over the years some cops are the old school yard bullies, or the losers who couldn’t get a good looking person to go to the prom with. Others are good people but have to suffer the idiots who abuse their badge and break their oaths to the people.