Breaking the Silence: Fresno Law Enforcement’s Journey with the LGBTQ+ Community

The Fresno Police Department’s history of community relations with the LGBTQ+ community is marred by bigotry, intolerance, and chauvinism. With the hiring of a new LGBTQ+ liaison, there is optimism for change and a new vision of future support and acceptance.

The disrespectful actions of the FPD has been shared in both local and nation wide media. An article called “Gay Latino Says Cops Sexually Assaulted Him” which was released Monday, February 12, 2007, described the actions of Fresno PD officers towards a gay man, Cain Gonzalez. The victim was assaulted when four police officers showed up to his home in a Southeast Fresno gated community, accused him of hiding drugs anally, and proceeded to physically penetrate him for search purposes.. During the assault, Gonzalez’s rectum was ruptured causing him pain. The officers later took him to a hospital for treatment. Gonzalez filed a lawsuit against the former Fresno police chief and unidentified officers. Gonzalez’s attorney, Bruce Nickerson, says the drug accusation was false and that no charges were filed against Gonzalez on that matter. Nickerson mentions that the officers made comments to Gonzalez that led him to believe that Fresno PD “have a policy and practice of assaulting gay Hispanic men.” Nickerson stated that the Fresno PD has refused to reveal the identification of the four police officers involved.

Nickerson is also known for covering a previous incident involving men and Fresno Deputy Sheriffs. In 2002 at Roeding Park, multiple men were arrested under the suspicion that they were meeting each other under the pretense that they were going to engage in sexual activity in a bathroom. The officers involved were former Sheriff Richard Pierce and five deputy sheriffs.

Bruce Nickerson represented the men in this case and he has said that the “Sheriff’s department targeted these men solely because of their gender and perceived sexual orientation, and publicized their arrests, all with the “unconstitutional and illegal goal of reducing the number of men” seeking sexual or other intimate association “from meeting one another in public places in Fresno particularly the public parks.” Nickerson mentions that hundreds of men were illegally arrested by the sheriff’s department because it was men meeting other men. A lawsuit was filed by Nickerson on the behalf of Martin Coldwell and another man, going by John Doe. In the lawsuit, it alleges that Sheriff Pierce and Sergeant Rick Ko targeted places often visited by people who identify as queer. In the complaint by Coldwell, he said he was visiting the park when he was approached by an undercover officer and in his words, “The park was frequented by law enforcement who would target men who were chatting with other men, but would ignore men who were chatting with women.” Queer men have faced discrimination and continuous harassment by the Fresno PD and County under the pretense that they were engaging in illegal activities.

A December 2023 Article from The Fresno Bee titled “Text Messages Among Fresno Police Unit Shows Racist, Homophobic Language, includes text messages from a lawsuit by a former Fresno police department officer who was subjected to sexual harassment from other officers. The article shares the horrific texts exchanged by male officers, many including homophobic “jokes” that target gay men. According to to Journalist Thaddeus Miller, the texts consist of of images and gifs. The article states, “That includes two men holding hands as they cross a street, men carrying Pride flags, gay icon Freddy Mercury, and the buttocks of a wrestler.

The images continue, with more than one depicting the main characters from 2005 romantic drama “Brokeback Mountain”, a movie about a decades-long forbidden affair between two cowboys that began in the 1960s”. Miller then goes on to state that the text messages included sexually charged images, one of which including President Joe Biden. Miller includes that the officers defended the way they spoke, taking on a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. “What happens in the K9 unit stays in the K9 unit” is how the officers responded to the accusations. This is one case and known situation where Fresno police officers acted homophobic and overall offensively with their peers.

According to a CNN article, another Fresno Police officer, Rick Fitzgerald, was under fire for homophobic behaviors. Fitzgerald attended a Proud Boys rally in Fresno’s Tower District in 2021, where he protested alongside the alt-right group. The Proud Boys are known for being racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and Islamophobic. Because of this, Fitzgerald was removed as a police officer, resulting in him suing the city of Fresno, the chief of police of Fresno, and the mayor of Fresno.

It is difficult to trust that all officers have good intentions and truly want to uphold their oath to protect the community they work within – especially when one begins to learn about the the history Fresno Police Department has with the gay community. However, based on the interview with Sergeant Matthew Couto, there is hope that the police force is moving towards being more diverse and tolerant of the people they serve and protect.

Couto was initially contacted regarding an incident that caught our attention online on January 15th 2024. This was regarding gay men potentially being targeted for arrest or citation for public sexual activity at Al Radka Park. Emailing Couto, an interview was arranged to talk about the incident as well ask questions regarding how Fresno PD treats inclusivity and diversity matters within the force. Upon starting the interview, Couto revealed he could not find anything regarding the incident through official channels and we were unable to corroborate anything else about the incident ourselves.

During this interview, several questions were asked about Fresno PD’s inclusivity efforts and how they handle diversity within the community. Couto himself is an openly gay member of the Fresno Police Department and occupies the newly created LBGTQ+ Liaison position, which aims to foster a better relationship between the LBGTQ+ community and Fresno Law Enforcement. By appointing Sergeant Couto, a member of the queer community himself, the department signifies it is taking a proactive approach to fostering a better relationship between law enforcement and LGBTQ+ community, showing the potential for a shift towards greater inclusivity and understanding with the community.
Couto also discussed the department’s efforts in LGBTQ+ awareness training for officers. He mentioned California’s recent passing of Assembly Bill 2504, which requires all police officers receive LGBTQ+ awareness training while they are in the police academy. This training equips officers with the necessary knowledge and understanding in order to interact respectfully with individuals belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to training initiatives, Couto emphasized the FPD’s commitment to treating all instances of public sex equally, regardless of sexual identity or gender identity.

Moreover, Couto mentioned the force’s participation at the “Stop the Hate” rally, which took place at Fresno City College on April 6th 2024. Indicating their active strides to show support for marginalized communities and suggests a genuine commitment to foster inclusivity and tolerance within law enforcement in Fresno.

While the revelations of homophobic and offensive behavior within the Fresno Police Department are deeply concerning, the steps taken by Sergeant Matthew Couto and the department offer hope for a positive change. By appointing Couto as the LGBTQ+ Liaison and implementing training initiatives, the FPD appears to be actively addressing these issues and striving to build a more inclusive and understanding relationship with the LGBTQ+ community.

We’d like to hear from you, please comment below with your thoughts or interactions you’ve had with the department…


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