New Jersey Spotlight: Dave D'Amico

Recently, here at the Untold Story, we had the opportunity to interview the current Chief Investigator Corrections and Youth services for Middlesex County, one of the largest departments in said county. However, Dave D’Amico hadn’t always found it easy to fit into his profession due to his sexual orientation, but he was determined to join the police force as, at the early age of five, becoming a police officer became his singular focus in his life. As his parents had recently divorced, D'Amico spent copious amounts of time snuggled into his grandmother’s couch in South Plainfield, New Jersey. Neither he or his grandparents had ever experienced the satisfaction of a grossly full bank account, but he admired his grandparents despite their financial difficulties. So, one day, D'Amico sat playing with his grandmother excitedly anticipating the start of Batman on the TV, as Batman was by far his favorite superhero, even his favorite fictional character. In recounting the events of that evening, D'Amico said “ So we are sitting there and Batman came on TV, and I remember being excited about Batman being on TV, and I heard my grandfather’s Buick turn into the driveway. And I got extremely excited that grandpa was home. I saw, though, that my grandmother got a little nervous, and she stopped playing with me on the floor, and went into the kitchen right away. I thought to greet my grandfather.” The evening did not play out as he had anticipated. Once his young ears detected the crunch of his father’s car wheels on the loose stones on the driveway, he rushed to the door to greet his grandfather while his grandmother grew increasingly nervous behind him, standing in front of an unfinished dinner. Upon realizing his dinner wasn’t ready, D'Amico’s grandfather’s demeanor quickly shifted from relief at arriving home to anger that his food wasn’t already waiting for him. “And it started off with a verbal argument and then it became physical, and, at some point, my grandfather was assaulting my grandmother and I remember, I don’t remember how. I definitely know it wasn’t my grandparents. But, out of nowhere, through the front door of the home, came a police officer. A South Plainfield police officer. And I remember his uniform. He had the dark blue pants, he had a light blue shirt on, he had the 8 point hat, he had a halster and a gun that went down one side of his leg and a baton that went down side the other, and he saved my grandmother’s life. And, not only did he save my grandmother’s life, but knowing now what I know, what I didn’t know then, there were no domestic violence laws, and he kind of picked this all up and put us back together as a family and left. And, that moment, when Batman was no longer my hero. That moment, that cop became my hero. And, so, from five years-old, all I’ve ever wanted to do was be a police officer and be that hero".

After that, there was no stopping him. From that age on he only pursued becoming a police officer. However, he knew he was different from his peers. Speaking on his dissimilarity with his peers, D'Amico said “I’ve always wanted to be a cop. And then I knew I was gay or I knew I was different. I didn’t think that was going to be a cause to stop? I really didn’t understand that being gay wasn’t okay in police work, and it didn’t really...I didn’t really think aobut it.” However, soon after entering into his first job in police work, he found that his identity would, in fact, present an obstacle for him to overcome: “the officer sitting next to me, my friend, he stopped eating. He stood up. He pointed at the inmate and he said “look at that fucking faggot. That’s why god created AIDs.” And then he sat down and he just kept on eating and, like nothing, and so, for me, in that moment I couldn’t eat anymore.” After that moment, D'Amico had, for the first time in his life, lost direction. He no longer knew if he could be the officer he so longed to be. So, he ran away for a short time, but his chief threatened to fire him if he didn’t appear that Monday, to which he absolved to appear in front of his chief to hand in his uniform and seek out another profession. However, he was met with an unexpected response: He kept on trying to talk me not into quitting. Finally, when I felt that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I said “and I’m gay!” I thought that by telling him that, and that was the first time it had ever blurted it out of my mouth, and it was out of anger. I just wanted to get out of there you know? And he wasn’t letting me go. He sat back, and he looked at me, and he said “So what?”. And I’ll never forget it. I will never forget the look on his face. He said to me “I don’t care what you do in your bed at night. You’re a good cop. You’ve got a great career, and I want you to stay.” After that he came out to the rest of the officers within the corrections facility he worked in to which he received a wide array of responses ranging from denial to hatred to indifference to understanding. So, he knew that his sexuality would present an obstacle, but not one he could not overcome.

Throughout his decorated career, D'Amico has served various different communities one of which being Asbury Park. He was offered the position through a judge in the municipal court’s office who had become a friend through mutual participation in GOAL (Gay Officers Action League), and, although he remains emphatic that he was happy with his job in corrections, the judge was relentless. So, he packed his bags and moved to Asbury Park. There he became witness to the creation and growth of Asbury Pride and has had the opportunity to meet with some of the most prominent members of the LGBTQ+ community here in New Jersey. However, he was not only witness to the rise of such a powerful event, but he came instrumental in its conception and continuation over the past decade. Being the only openly gay police officer on the force, he was charged with acting as a bodyguard and escort to various speakers including governors, congress representatives, and the founder of Asbury Pride itself, Laura Popel: “So, the favorite person that I have met through that experience is the, was the person who organized Asbury Pride, Laura Popel. She inspired me so much with what she was doing and how she was able to get a team of people together to make Pride such a great event. At the time, there were a lot of things going on in Asbury Park. It was not the Asbury that it is today. That’s for sure. It was riddled with crime. It was riddled with homelessness. We had a big drug problem. We had a homeless problem. We had a prostitution problem. There were a lot of things going in Asbury Park. Property values were low. We were the lowest paid police force in the county even though we did the most work".

D'Amico admits his sexual orientation presented some obstacles for him to overcome within his career, but it also presented opportunities for him to provide the law enforcement community with a better understanding of minority communities and how they should be treated. He admits that there is a formidable barrier between minority communities and the police for a variety of reasons, but he believes it to be the result of a general misunderstanding. So, in an attempt to break down the barrier that has been built between the police and its community, D'Amico travels around the country in an attempt to educate various police forces and academies on the importance of social equity and understanding: “that education process is so important because what it did because it got that heterosexual police officer with power and control, to try and understand what it was like to be somebody that is not them. To come for help, and really that is what it was all about. It was trying to get that police officer to understand what it was to walk a day in the communities’ shoes and what to expect when dealing with certain communities. So, it was extremely rewarding. I am so fortunate that I was a part of it, and still I am a part of it today. I still teach at a lot of academies. I go across the country lecturing. I do a lot of anti-bias stuff in schools, and I still teach the officers that are under my command at Middlesex County. I love teaching. The only reason I got my masters degree was to teach, and, so I love to teach".

Although D'Amico did leave New Jersey for a short time to serve with the Broward County Police Department in Florida, D'Amico believes that New Jersey is his home and that it is where he belongs. He also believes that New Jersey presents the best environment for LGBTQ+ people to safely and happily reside within an accepting community: “I’ll say that I believe that New Jersey is the most diverse state. I really do… It makes us a special place for a lot of different reasons. Number 1, that diversity forces understanding and inclusion, and it forces people to try and understand what it's like to be their neighbor, and, because we live so close to one another, and we have so many different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations, it gives us opportunities. I really think New Jersey gives us opportunities to live in a state that understands that that diversity is what makes us stronger and, instead, doesn’t divide us. Like, I hear stories about different states and rural atmospheres and positions where the LGBTQ family has problems or has issues because there is not that much diversity or inclusion or understanding. I think we are very lucky in New Jersey”.

If you would like to learn a little more about D'Amico and his story, please check out the transcription provided!

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