When Matthew Shepard was killed, Dave O’Malley, a self-proclaimed homophobe, was assigned to the case. After a grueling investigation, Dave O’Malley transformed completely and he writes about his experience in the book “Coming Out From Behind the Badge” by Greg Miraglia.
I never had any desire to be in law enforcement. In high school, my dad called me a half-time student. He said, “David, you spend half of your time getting kicked out of school and the other half getting back in.” My vice principal wrote in my senior yearbook, “Some bring happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go. Good luck; you’ll need it.”
I attended the University of Wyoming and majored in social work. I came out of that program with the attitude that there were two things wrong with our country: Republicans and police officers. Later, after taking a police test on a dare, passing, and getting hired at the Laramie Police Department, I quickly learned that I was wrong, and the two things wrong with our country were Democrats and social workers! It took many years and the death of a young man named Matthew Shepard to force me to realize that I had spent my life formulating my beliefs and opinions of others based on stereotypes rather than on an informed basis of knowledge through personal experiences.
On October 6, 1998, Matt Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming. Matt was a loving son, a brother, and a friend. On the same day, I was the commander of the Investigations Division of the Laramie Police Department, and, in all respects, I was bigoted and prejudiced toward the gay community. Although I have never physically assaulted anyone I thought might be gay, I certainly teased those I felt could be and bought into all of the myths and stereotypes of homosexuals. I used all of the gross terminology and retold the jokes I heard, never stopping to think about who might be listening or who I might be hurting.
On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard lay dying in a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colorado. It was on that day that I began to learn so many things that have caused me to lose my ignorance; this has become profoundly important in my life. The investigation into Matthew’s murder allowed me to meet many people from the gay community, which I knew existed in Laramie but had never experienced. I saw the terror in the eyes, the horror on the faces, and heard the fear in the voices of Matt’s many gay and lesbian friends. The trauma and fear was causing kids to quit school or transfer to other universities. I quickly began to understand what a hate crime was and the profound effect this one had on the gay community, not just in Laramie, but in all corners of the world. I never realized the extent of this investigation’s affect on our country. It was like throwing a stone into a pond. The stone struck Matt and his family, and, as the waves rippled outward, they struck his friends, his acquaintances, other gay people, the parents of gay people, their brothers and sisters, and beyond. These very same ripples are still impacting people all of these years later, and thank God that they are.
At the beginning, I never realized how personal this case would become. You see, Aaron McKinney, one of the two people who murdered Matthew Shepard, was my next-door neighbor for several years as he was growing up. Matt’s uncle Steve and I graduated from high school together. Although we were not friends, I knew Steve, and it made the dynamics of this case much more intense. A volume could be written about the investigation itself. It was a year between the time Matt was killed and when Aaron McKinney was put on trial for Matthew’s murder. Other volumes could be written on everything that has transpired since the day McKinney was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison.
Although I never had the opportunity to meet Matt, meeting his family and friends was all I needed to make the decision to do whatever I could do to help, in any way possible, to move towards an understanding of tolerance and diversity in our country. Following the trial, I became involved in lobbying efforts, through the Human Rights Campaign, to support federal legislation by way of the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act. This act would give the same basic protections received by those based on race, religion, and national origin to those based on gender, disability, and sexual orientation. The legislation appeared to me to be a no brainer! After all, every major law enforcement executive organization in our country supported and endorsed the bill. I quickly found out how naïve I was and now know that if sexual orientation had not been included in the bill, it probably would have passed in 1999 as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Some years later, at a Human Rights Campaign banquet in Denver, Colorado, I was introduced to a group of gay and lesbian peace officers from the area. I was hugely impressed with their personal and professional demeanor and with their dedication to their chosen profession. It was also apparent that some administrators supported their officers, but that other officers were forced to remain hidden among the heterosexual officers they worked with. Even if that person was the best detective, crime scene technician, SWAT team member, or any other integral member of any department, he or she was subject to ridicule, harassment, and even termination, for no reason other than sexual orientation. Being a cop is tough; being a gay cop is tougher; being a gay cop having to remain hidden for fear of losing the profession he has chosen is incomprehensible to me.
It is incumbent on administrators across our nation to stand up and support their officers, without the prejudices towards gays and lesbians historically encountered in law enforcement. Administrators need to lead by example, provide training specific to prejudice and bias at all levels, formulate general orders as they pertain to prejudice and bias within the department and public we serve, and take quick and severe action against those who violate those premises.
They say a Democrat in Wyoming would be a Republican in any other state! Even in a conservative state and in a conservative profession, I never heard any disparaging comments toward my efforts to help others understand tolerance and diversity. That goes a long way toward showing others the caliber of the men and women of the Laramie Police Department, a group that I hold dear to my heart and would today provide backup for in any situation, regardless of the officer’s race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.