Florida deputy 'gave his heart and soul to his profession'

Shannon Bennett, 39, was the first law enforcement officer in Florida to die from the coronavirus.
Image: Shannon Bennett.
Shannon BennettCeleste Byers / for NBC News
By Tim Fitzsimons

Shannon Bennett, an openly gay deputy in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, was the first law enforcement officer in Florida to die from COVID-19.

Shortly after returning from a St. Patrick's Day trip to Chicago with his fiancé, Jonathan Frey, and two friends, Bennett, 39, left work early on March 23 due to illness.

He texted his brother, Darren, the next day: “Hey bro I’m headed to the Er I can’t breath and can’t finish my sentences,” according to messages his brother posted to Facebook.

Despite a slight improvement in his condition, which had given his family hope, he died on April 3, after having tested positive for COVID-19 and been put on a ventilator.

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony called Bennett a “consummate professional" who tried to help the department "move forward," especially on issues related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities.

“He confidently served as an openly gay deputy and used his platform to help bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement,” Tony said in a statement after Bennett’s death. “For seven years, Shannon worked and walked in the Stonewall Parade. I had the pleasure of working directly with him on future projects related to integrating and uniting our agency with the LGBTQ community, both internally and externally.”

Out on the Frontline: Shannon Bennett is one of NBC Out's 2020 Pride Month honorees. To see the full list, click here.

Rod Skirvin, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, said Bennett was “extremely loved by his community.”

“He gave his heart and soul to his profession,” Skirvin added.

Darren Bennett took to Facebook to share photos of himself and Shannon throughout the years and lamented that he couldn’t be by his brother’s side during his final days.

“I would’ve never left your side. Damn COVID19!!!!,” he wrote.

Bennett was newly engaged to Frey, who called Bennett his “soulmate” in an interview with South Florida’s Local 10 News.

"This is not the end of who he is," Frey told Local 10. "He was the love of my life, and I know his legacy is going to live on, one way or another.”

Frey told People magazine the two met in 2013 while volunteering at an LGBTQ mental health center and got engaged after Bennett proposed to him at Disney World last December.

A native of Broward County, Bennett joined the sheriff’s office in 2007.

In the aftermath of the 2016 mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub, Pulse, that left 49 people dead, Bennett reportedly parked his police cruiser outside LGBTQ establishments in gay-friendly Wilton Manors, Florida, to reassure patrons of their safety.

His death shined a light on one of Florida’s first COVID-19 outbreaks and risks faced by officers in Broward County.

“Some deputies don’t have masks,” Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, told the Miami Herald in the aftermath of Bennett’s death. “Some do have masks that have been used several times before.”

In April, over 70 people at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office had tested positive for COVID-19. One month after Bennett’s death, 911 dispatcher Nikima Thompson, a mother of four, died from the disease and became the office’s second pandemic fatality.

In the aftermath of Bennett’s death, the nonprofit Broward Sheriff’s Advisory Council announced it was creating a new fund in Bennett’s honor for families of first responders who die from COVID-19.

Follow NBC Out on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram