Gay New Jersey Police Officer Files Lawsuit Against Fellow Police for Harassement
Michael J. Kurz painfully recalls the day in 2001 that his fellow officers at the Washington Township Police Department wouldn't look him in the eye.
His secret was out. Kurz had confided to a coworker that he was gay and the friend repeated the secret - saying he had "the biggest news ever" - to other officers in a bar.
Since that day, the young police officer's dream of patrolling the streets of his Gloucester County hometown has been a sour mix of police-work joys and macho-cop gibes.
He said his work grew so humiliating that he filed an internal-affairs complaint for sexual harassment - a charge the Township Council tossed last week - and a Superior Court lawsuit alleging that the township allowed a hostile work environment.
"I am not doing this for the money, but for the principle," said Kurz during an interview the other day at his small townhouse in Sewell. "There are other officers out there like me, and if they see someone else who has come out and who is courageous, they may also come out or feel better about themselves. We are just like everybody else - we're human."
Kurz, 34, tells of a career that turned to pain after he - and the rest of the 86-member police department - discovered his sexuality.
Once, Kurz remembered, when an instructor advised officers to use towelettes to avoid AIDS, a police corporal shouted: "Hey Mikey, these are for professional use only!"
He said one coworker teased that Kurz's patrol-car steering wheel might be sticky. Several yelled crude insults during briefings.
Finally, last summer, Kurz pulled over an unlicensed trucker and called for backup.
For 20 minutes, nobody came.
"It was a potentially dangerous motor-vehicle stop," he said.
With his internal-affairs complaint going nowhere, Kurz hired lawyer Clifford Van Syoc and sued the township.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, says there is "rampant homophobia in the law enforcement community," which makes it difficult for officers to be openly gay. The township denies the charges.
"I don't believe I should have to quit a job I love because a few people have harassed me," said Kurz, a soft-spoken man who sports a crew cut. "It is the township's job to correct it."
He said that about 90 percent of the police force supports him. Some officers have invited him to bring dates to their weddings and christenings, he said.
He described the ridicule haltingly, referring to himself in third-person. As the torment deepened, he said, his friends in the department urged him to speak up.
He said he was afraid to tell a police commander after hearing that a captain had ordered increased police patrol in an area where the captain said "faggots" were loitering.
Kurz faces an uphill battle. Few U.S. police officers are openly gay. The country's first gay police chief was appointed in California two years ago, said Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, a gay and lesbian rights organization. Last year, the first openly lesbian sheriff was elected in Texas.
Antidiscrimination policies protect gays and lesbians who work at most big private companies, but governments lag, said Brad Luna, a spokesman for the national Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian rights advocacy group.
New Jersey is one of 18 states that bar discrimination of government workers based on sexual orientation. Pennsylvania is not among them.
Washington Township Police Chief Chuck Billingham, Township Council President Frank Scarpato 3d and solicitor John C. Eastlack Jr. declined to comment.
Mayor Paul Moriarty said that as soon as he heard about Kurz's internal affairs complaint, he met with the chief "within 24 hours." They ordered a probe and sensitivity training for all the police officers.
"I don't know what more an employer could do," Moriarty said.
Chief Billingham filed Police Department charges against two police officers in November, a few days after Kurz filed his lawsuit. The charges were based on Kurz's internal-affairs complaint, which was filed in March 2005. The officers - including a man whom Kurz had attended high school with - admitted to the charges, which could have led to suspensions.
Neither of those officers would comment.
An independent hearing officer, hired by the township to examine the charges, threw them out, saying the township waited too long after Kurz's complaint to take action. Last week, the Township Council voted to go along with the hearing officer's ruling.
Moriarity blamed the delay on the internal-affairs investigator, who has since resigned.
Kurz said he celebrated his fifth anniversary of being openly gay last week.
"It's really a big event for me," he said. "The first two years, you feel like a different person and it's hard on the family and maybe some friends. But after that, if you stay the same, 95 percent of the people will realize you are the same person and will treat you the same as they had before."