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Can Cops Learn How to Protect Trans Women?

May 12, 2014 07:01:30 am

. A January protest draws attention to the case of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman who was beaten to death outside a New York City police precint in 2013. (Photo by The All-Nite Images, via Flickr)

After decades of fractious relationships between police officers and transgender women, the tide is beginning to turn in favor of training officers to become more sensitive and respectful of gender identities.

The most recent evidence comes from the Department of Justice (DOJ). In late March, the DOJ announced that transgender law enforcement training would be available to police departments across the country under the auspices of the Community Relations Service (CRS).

The CRS, established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, provides assistance to state and local units of government, private and public organizations, and community groups in preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions.

The transgender cultural training program will teach officers how to better understand the transgender community and “address sensitivities, stereotypes and expectations” according to Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

After the announcement, a first training session was held at the DOJ’s Washington DC headquarters. Other sessions will be conducted at 10 CRS regional offices and four smaller field offices across the U.S. Volunteers from local advocacy groups will join regional DOJ staff in the sessions. Further details about the schedule are so far unavailable.

The federal program underlines a shift that is already happening nationally, city by city.

Cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC are developing policies to acknowledge the problems that LGBTQ activists have been pointing out for years: profiling trans women for prostitution, using incorrect gender pronouns, misunderstanding intimate partner violence, and housing transgender women incorrectly.

According to Lisa Mottet, deputy executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, while transgender rights are not yet recognized as such by the courts, individuals do have legal rights regardless of their gender identity.

“The Supreme Court hasn’t yet recognized a trans person’s constitutional right, but there are minimum standards [for housing prisoners] articulated that include trans people, like prisoners can’t be housed in cell where there is a decent likelihood that they will be assaulted,” Mottet says, adding that officers can’t be “deliberately indifferent.”

Transgender people were more likely to face threats and intimidation as part of intimate partner violence, and were over four times more likely to suffer police violence than those who did not identify as transgender, according to a 2012 Anti-Violence Project Report.

Trans women and trans people of color were even more likely to experience such violence, the report said, noting that in nearly one-third of the intimate partner violence cases reported to the police, the victim was arrested instead of the abuser.

Although transgender men are routinely disrespected by the police, trans women are more likely to receive harsher treatment—often a result of the false belief that most trans women are prostitutes, and of what is sometimes a more visible nonconformity.

“Trans men don’t get as much scrutiny as trans women,” says Ryan Sallans, a transgender man who speaks on LGBTQ issues across the country. “It has to do with misogyny..

“The worst thing a woman could do is not represent the ideal woman. People can understand why a woman wants to be a man but not why a man wants to be a woman.”

New York Learns Respect

In the fall of 2012, “Make The Road New York,” with help from the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), a nonprofit advocacy for the LGBTQ community, released a report on police profiling and abuse of transgender women in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens.

The 2010-2012 survey collected information from 302 Jackson Heights residents. It found that 28 percent of non-LGBT people had been stopped by the police, in contrast to 54 percent of LGBT and 59 percent of transgender people.

According to Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy for the Anti-Violence Project, the data reflects “what we know to have been true for several years.”.

While New York advocates acknowledge that police treatment of trans women is improving, they say profiling and mistreatment remains a serious problem in many parts of the city.

Chanel Lopez, a hate violence counselor/advocate with AVP, says New York cops resist calling transgender women by their proper gender pronouns.

Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy for the Anti-Violence Project, says the AVP currently targeting its training to officers who are receiving promotions, citing “limited resources.”

The AVP instructs officers to avoid pejorative words like “transvestite,” and “it” and ask questions such as “What is your given name?” as opposed to “What is your real name?”

Officers are also asked to address individuals by the pronoun they currently use for themselves and if they don’t know, officers are instructed to say “the person” or “they” in place of that pronoun, instead of assigning one themselves.

The lack of respect towards transgender women also extends to domestic violence calls, where transgender women are expected to defend themselves against their male partners.

“They will come, but they won’t treat you like a biological male and female couple” Lopez told The Crime Report. “A trans woman is being beat up by her partner and the cops frown on it because it’s like, ‘Aren’t you a biological man?’.

Chestnut says that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio makes these efforts an “easier lift.”

Efforts to make community members more familiar with their rights and with reporting police misconduct more frequently are improving, Chestnut says.

But still, she adds, too many trans women are being killed. In 2013, there were 13 homicides of trans women, nationally—12 of whom were women of color.

Islan Nettles, 21, was beaten outside of a Harlem police precinct in the summer of last year. She fell into a coma and eventually had to be taken off life support.

Although the investigation is still active, the suspect in her killing, Paris Wilson, had his misdemeanor charges thrown out after 90 days passed without an arrest.

Washington D.C. Repackages Liaison Unit

Sometimes new policies meant to improve police treatment of trans women have mixed results. 

Washington DC Police Commissioner Cathy Lanier created an affiliate liaison unit that would disperse officers trained in LGBT matters among seven police districts—in the process shrinking the size of her department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit’s central office.

The unit that served as a liaison to the LGBT community was cut through attrition to four people and a half-time sergeant. Now the community has nearly 300 affiliate officers who are specially trained to assist transgender people.

This would appear to be tremendous progress, but Terry said it has contributed to less efficiency in some ways.

A February 2014 report by an independent task force formed by the Anti-Defamation League of Washington, detailed how Lanier’s reorganization of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit actually hurt its outreach efforts.

Jason Terry, a volunteer at DC Trans Coalition, said there has been progress: violence against transgender people has gone down. There were no known murders of transgender people in Washington DC in 2013 or 2014, in comparison to one murder in 2012 and two in 2011.

But he says communication from police to LGBT groups could be better.

The DC Trans Coalition doesn’t discover that a hate crime or severe assault happened until a central captain has been informed first, which slows down the group’s response by as much as a day, Terry says.

Terry recounts the story of a woman who survived a brutal attack:

“We found out she survived, and there was a nine to 10-hour delay in communication to us, and then they wouldn’t tell the young woman that the (attacker) had been arrested,” Terry says.

“She’s in the hospital with 42 stab wounds. Don’t they think she’d like to know if he’s still out there waiting for her?”

However, following the ADL report, Terry says he is heartened by how much the attitude toward working with advocates has changed.

Of the 57 reform recommendations transgender advocates proposed, Terry says the vast majority are being implemented. The courses with police, which happen around six times a year, will have a new curriculum. One major change will be the addition of an officer-instructor who will teach the course alongside Terry---in in the hope that officers will be more receptive to one of their own.

“We go through two or three years of screaming at each other to ‘Yeah, we could do better.’ I really appreciated that level of candor,” Terry says.

Some transgender advocates in the community said they believe the police force has really improved, and praise both the police chief and DC Mayor Vincent Gray for their attention to transgender issues.

“The past four years, things have really progressed,” says Jeri Hughes, who serves on the transgender committee at the DC Department of Corrections.

Despite the relative optimism, Hughes says one thing hasn’t changed: police-profiling of transgender women for prostitution.

“It still seems that transgender women are charged, whether they’re guilty or not,” Hughes says, explaining that trans women hanging out in areas known for prostitution are arrested for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Some people hang out with friends, so they’re not there to prostitute,” Hughes says. “They’re there to socialize. There aren’t many other places they feel safe “

During Lanier’s tenure as police chief, there have been three open unsolved homicide cases and two closed homicide cases, according to a report produced through a FOIA request. These were cases in which the victim was identified as transgender during the investigation, and may not include all cases.

Philadelphia Tackles Verbal Abuse

In February 2002, two transgender women, Deja Alvarez and her friend Finesse Kelly, were waiting for a cab in the Center City area of Philadelphia when Alvarez said that Officer John Brady harassed them repeatedly, calling them names and telling them to leave the area.

A police commission confirmed the verbal abuse complaint. . When Deja Alvarez sued the city of Philadelphia for police mistreatment, she asked for more police training on interactions with transgender people as well as the assignment of new officers in the neighborhood.

In response, the city established a police liaison and LGBT community advocate. Alvarez now sits on the committee overseeing these reforms.

The effort to educate officers has now extended to judges as well.

Of her experiences with police, Alavarez says, “Not all officers are bad. You have good cops and bad cops. (But) most of our experiences end up being bad.”

Alvarez, who now works for the Mazzoni Center, an LGBT health and wellness center in Philadelphia, said conditions have improved for transgender women.

But, she adds, a lot of work needs to be done in the Center City area in regards to profiling transgender women for prostitution or dealing drugs.

“We know it will always happen on some level,” Alvarez says. “They’re not beating you with nightsticks but they still approach you. They are nicer to you.”

Other Cities

Other cities have dealt with more recent, highly visible cases of police discrimination against transgender women.

In New Orleans, where HIV is an epidemic, the health risks are especially high for trans women, who are heavily profiled for prostitution. When they are arrested, their condoms are taken as evidence, thus removing protection and discouraging trans women from carrying condoms on their person.

The autopsy of Brenisha Hall, who died after receiving black market silicone injections, was mishandled after the Interim LSU Hospital performed the autopsy instead of the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office. The coroner’s office had not been informed of the criminal investigation.

In 2012, a transgender woman, Tiffany Gooden, was stabbed to death on the West Side of Chicago---the second time such a crime had happened in the past four months. (Trans woman Paige Clay was shot and killed in an alley in the same neighborhood.)

Less than a month later, Chicago adopted a general order that mandates police officers respect pronouns and not associate one’s gender identity with certain crimes. The city council has oversight over the enforcement of the order, however, which may dull its effectiveness of the order, some LGBT advocates say, according to The Windy City Times.

Internationally, the treatment of transgender men and women can be even grimmer.

Denmark, Norway Finland, Germany and France have made it difficult for transgender people to change their legal gender, requiring surgery and hormone therapy, Amnesty International reports.

In South Africa, the constitution makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, which allows greater protections than in the U.S., Nevertheless, the culture shuns transgender men to the degree that transgender men marry men to conceal their gender identities, according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report.

UPDATE: Since this story was published, the NYPD has announced that they will no longer confiscate condoms as evidence to support prostitution cases. For AP coverage of the story, click HERE.

Casey Quinlan is an editor of the investing section at U.S. News and World Report. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Atlantic and Minyanville. She welcomes comments from readers.

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