Following a string of violence against Black trans women, LGBTQ activists in New York took to the streets in summer 2020 to draw attention to the deadly issue.
Jason Rosenberg, Marti Gould-Cummings and other activists joined the demonstration at Stonewall Inn on June 2.
City officials set a curfew that evening. Shortly after the 8 p.m. deadline came, a number protesters, who were walking hand-in-hand, were violently attacked and arrested by Rosenberg, a member the activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP. “I felt excessively violent force on all my body and was knocked unconscious, and woke up maybe a few minutes later,” he said to NBC News. “My glasses were on the floor, my mask was off and my head was bloody.”
Despite the injuries he allegedly endured at the hands of police, Rosenberg said, he was denied medical treatment while in custody and ended up with a broken arm and 11 staples in his head after seeking treatment following his release.
“There was even a point where we were all sitting waiting to be transported to whatever detention center we were going to be processed at and people were chanting ‘Medic! “Medic!” “He needs medical attention here,” he said.
Cummings, a former New York City Council candidate who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said police officers were “really targeting protesters.” Cummings, who was arrested and spent more than 10 hours in police custody before being released, said they were unable to make a phone call and did not hear their Miranda rights. This is not an isolated incident from the NYPD,” Rosenberg stated. According to the New York City-based Legal Aid Society, 295 people in Manhattan alone had been “languishing in detention for 24+ hours” as of the morning of June 3, 2020, in the aftermath of widespread protests. The NYPD did not reply to a request for comment about Rosenberg’s or Cummings’ specific allegations. However, the New York City Law Department issued a statement at that time.
“The accusation that officers are retaliating against New Yorkers who are protesting is disingenuous, exceptionally unfair, and perhaps deliberately ignoring the fact that the Police Department is dealing with a crisis within a crisis,” the department said, according to a report published by the nonprofit news site The Marshall Project.
The treatment Rosenberg and Cummings claimed they were subjected too is not exclusive to New York City. There are numerous reports in the United States about police using excessive force against gay, bisexual and transgender people. There have also been numerous incidents in which LGBTQ individuals said members of law enforcement made disparaging remarks about their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to news reports, lawsuits and academic studies. These incidents, along with the historically difficult relationship between law enforcement officers and the LGBTQ community, have led to a growing number police departments in the country to offer training on cultural competency and LGBTQ awareness for their officers. There are many trainings available from Washington, D.C. to Palo Alto, California. However, no one-size fits all approach is being used. Instead, each department creates programs that reflect their local communities.
The relationship between law enforcement and the LGBTQ community has long been strained. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of this rocky relationship is the iconic 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. A police raid on Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, triggered the multiday protest. It is widely considered to be a turning point in modern gay rights movements.
Throughout much of modern U.S. history, police officers were bound to enforce explicitly anti-gay laws — from local measures outlawing men from “impersonating a female” to the widespread criminalization of same-sex sexual activity. In fact, it wasn’t until the landmark 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas that gay sex was decriminalized throughout the country. These laws have lingering consequences,” stated Christy Mallory (legal director at UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute), an LGBTQ think tank. “It can happen in subtle ways from being ingrained in some people’s heads that somehow same-sex relationships are inferior or should still be criminalized.”
“Given that this history is not so long ago, there are people who remember being wrapped up in that, which can come both on the law enforcement side and within the LGBTQ communities,” she added.
A 2015 report, co-authored by Mallory, highlights the numerous surveys, court cases and academic studies that document the alleged discrimination and harassment of LGBTQ people by law enforcement. Most notably, the report points to a 2013 survey of anti-LGBTQ violence survivors who interacted with police that found almost half (48 percent) reported they had experienced police misconduct in the previous year, including use of excessive force and entrapment. According to recent reports, transgender people and queer people are particularly at risk for police misconduct.
The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found 58 percent of trans respondents who said they interacted with police in the previous year alleged they had been harassed by law enforcement. The survey also found 57 percent of respondents said they were uncomfortable contacting police for help.
In response to allegations such as these, New York recently repealed an anti-loitering code — dubbed the “walking while trans” law — that transgender advocates said was penalizing trans women for simply walking down the street. A similar anti-loitering code has been on the books since 1995 in California, with state Sen. Scott Wiener recently introducing a bill that would overturn this law.
Black LGBTQ persons also report more police harassment.
A study published in June in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by Devin English, a public health professor at Rutgers University, found 43 percent of Black sexual minority men experienced police discrimination in the past year. According to English, this unequal treatment had many negative consequences on the community, including anxiety and depression. Mallory said that although many explicit discriminatory laws and policies aimed at LGBTQ people have been repealed or modified, the issue of overpolicing queer people remains. She pointed to a study published by the Williams Institute in May that found lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people are six times more likely than the general public to be stopped by police (data about transgender individuals were not available in the datasets analyzed).
One way this historically fraught relationship between law enforcement and the LGBTQ community has manifested over the past several years is in the decision to ban uniformed police officers from participating in Pride marches. The bans have been divisive, even within the LGBTQ community — and particularly among openly gay police officers.
The Williams Institute has made a number of key recommendations to bridge the gap, including the implementation of LGBTQ diversity, sensitivity and specialization trainings in law enforcement departments.
Mallory stated that there are no federal laws that require LGBTQ training in law enforcement. However, two states, California and New Jersey recently required such training. Individual police departments are more likely to implement these measures. Malory however said that there is no reliable data about how many have them in place.
‘We can continue to build trust’
A number of law enforcement departments have proactively decided to add LGBTQ programs to their arsenal of training courses. In fact, the largest local police departments in the U.S. — New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and Washington, D.C. — all offer some form of LGBTQ training.
The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington — the sixth largest local police department in the U.S. — has been offering LGBTQ training since 2000, though it expanded its curriculum in 2015. Sgt. Nicole Brown, who has been a supervisor for the department’s LGBT liaison unit for the past three years, said her department was the first in the nation to offer such training.
Prior to the start of this training, negative attitudes about the LGBTQ community were reportedly pervasive within the department: In 1996, during a retraining of veteran officers, a word association exercise asked for responses to the word “gays.” The officers’ answers — which elicited no positive or even neutral responses — included “wrong,” “weird,” “faggots,” “AIDS,” “ungodly,” “don’t like ’em” and “immoral,” according to a reporter for The Washington Post, who was present during the training.
Brown, who has worked as a D.C. police officer for 14 years, said she has seen first-hand the value of effective LGBTQ training for law enforcement. Regular training sessions are offered to officers in the district. They cover everything from how to handle anti-LGBTQ hate crime investigations to how to use the correct pronouns to identify transgender people.
But Brown believes there is no substitute for training in the community. This community is one she belongs to. Officers are able to meet LGBT members and hear their stories when they visit our unit. She said that they meet with community leaders who they interact with every day, and then they return to their districts to share the knowledge with their colleagues.
Face-to-face informal meetings can help to dispel preconceived notions police officers and LGBTQ community members might have about each other and foster solid relationships. Brown shared that she hears often from other officers and the people they work with, that quick checks-ins can help open up conversations about similar experiences and help find common ground.
Without building trust with LGBTQ residents, awkward encounters are more likely. Brown said that officers will be better able to understand the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ residents and how the department can support them once they have completed the cultural competency component of their training.
” I think officers can get a little too focused on the fact they don’t want any of their colleagues to feel uncomfortable and that they want to be politically correct. Following the training, she added, “their approach moves to: “I shouldn’t be nervous that I’m going to say the wrong thing, because I am treating this person like a human being, how I would like to be treated.”
While efforts are being made by the D.C. police to improve the relationship between members of the LGBTQ community and law enforcement, some local activists still have reservations about engaging with police.
Sultan Shakir is the executive director of SMYAL in D.C., which supports and empowers LGBTQ youths. He said that although the training does have some benefits, it doesn’t address the root causes. A training can help someone understand the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation, but it won’t change their attitude towards a whole group of people. This is especially true when that attitude is based on centuries-old stereotypes about how society views them. “You can’t change that mentality in a two-hour training.”
Shakir said he would prefer a system where first responders are social workers trained on “supporting you from a trauma-informed approach” and “de-escalation.”
“We do our absolute best to try not to engage with the police department,” he said. “When it comes to our work, there’s a lot of very understandable fear, trauma, frustration and anger with a lot of the youth we work with around past engagements with the police.”
While the district has provided some form of LGBTQ-specific training for law enforcement officers for more than two decades, some localities — including Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Grand Forks, North Dakota — have only recently started to incorporate this type of training.
City officials in Grand Rapids approved LGBTQ training for police officers and firefighters in April, at a maximum cost of $20,000 for both departments as part of the one-off scheme. This pilot program teaches about the best practices for de-escalation of LGBTQ individuals, microaggressions and misgendering, as well as the history between law enforcement officers and the LGBTQ community.
“We are aware that the LGBTQ community has been incarcerated and arrested more [than the general public],”, said Christin Johnson, chief oversight specialist at Grand Rapids Office of Oversight and Public Accountability. “The point of these training sessions is to make sure that everybody feels welcome and that police are treating people fairly across the board.”
The Grand Forks Police Department recently announced it would launch a Safe Places initiative, which aims to train officers and local businesses to better support LGBTQ victims of hate crimes and harassment. First introduced by the Seattle Police Department in May 2015, Safe Places offers LGBTQ people the ability to report crimes to local businesses and organizations familiar to them that have signed up for the program.
“Some people aren’t comfortable with police coming to them, or them going to a police department,” Officer Brian Samson, the Grand Forks Police Department’s LGBTQ liaison, told the Grand Forks Herald in July. “Seattle found that when people go to a place they’re familiar with, or a local business, the people filing a complaint, or whatever’s going on — it’s easier to communicate with the police better, because it’s a neutral place for both parties.”
After introducing its version of the Safe Places initiative, the Seattle Police Department saw a major increase in the number of reports about harassment and hate crimes in the community. In 2014, 26 anti-LGBTQ crimes were reported to the department, and in 2015, when the Safe Place program had been in place for the last eight months of that year, the department saw 71 anti-LGBTQ hate crimes reported. A spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department, Sgt. Randy Huserik stated.
While some police forces are voluntarily choosing to launch LGBTQ-focused initiatives, others are doing so after being sued by alleged victims of police brutality.
Gustavo Alvarez, a gay resident of Palo Alto, California, settled his lawsuit against its police department after accusing it of violating his civil rights, resulting in a settlement that included a $572,500 payout and a one-off two hours of mandatory LGBTQ-awareness training for all police officers in the department. Alvarez claimed in his complaint that several officers used excessive force against him and targeted him specifically because of his sexual orientation. A surveillance video recorded Feb. 17, 2018, from Alvarez’s security camera at his home in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park showed officers slamming him against a car, and one officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez pushing Alvarez’s head against the windshield. The complaint says the officers initiated contact with Alvarez because one of them believed he was driving with a suspended license. It also alleges Alvarez was “mocked, made fun of and humiliated because of his sexual orientation” while in police custody. According to Cody Salfen, Benitez used a microphone to record him making fun of Alvarez. He was heard talking in a “very loud, flamboyant tone” while pretending to be Alvarez.
Following the incident, Benitez was placed on administrative leave and retired from the department in September 2019. Benitez was required by the settlement to apologize to Alvarez. It reads: “I am sorry about my actions during Mr. Alvarez’ arrest. I regretfully lost my composure and hope that the settlement will allow Mr. Alvarez, to continue his life. Sincerely, Wayne Benitez.”
“Alvarez was very traumatized by their bigotry,” Salfen said. “There was no secret that he was gay, and the officers definitely used that as a way to demean him in their prior contacts with him and also during this contact.”
Introducing LGBTQ awareness training is a starting point, according to Salfen, but it’s not enough to put an end to discriminatory police attitudes.
” A culture that is hostile to the LGBT community will not be eradicated by a two-hour class. These institutional norms have been around for decades and may even be longer. He said that you cannot just turn the switch and make it disappear.
In October 2020, Benitez was charged with assault under color of authority and lying on a police report for his alleged actions during the arrest of Alvarez; he pleaded not guilty. According to James Reifschneider (acting captain of the department’s field services division), the Palo Alto Police Department, it was not able discuss details of the civil case because of ongoing criminal prosecutions.
Reifschneider, however, affirmed the importance of police officer training and said the department is going beyond the requirements of California’s Assembly Bill 2504, which mandates all new police officers in the state to receive training about the LGBTQ community. Our Department decided to extend this training to all of our sworn officers (i.e. veteran officers as well) beginning in January 2020,” he said in an email. “We’ll be continuing to do it on an ongoing basis moving forward.”
California became the first state to introduce mandatory training on sexual orientation and gender identity for incoming police officers, after former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2504 into law in late 2018. New recruits must be trained in five distinct areas. These include understanding differences between gender identity and sexual orientation, how they intersect with race, culture, religion, and learning the appropriate terminology about sexual orientation. The statewide training also covers how to effectively respond to hate crimes and domestic violence against LGBTQ victims, as well as ways to make the workplace more inclusive for LGBTQ coworkers. While this law came into force on Jan. 1, 2019, it will be some time before all police officers across the state complete LGBTQ awareness education (and there’s currently no deadline for when officers must complete the training).
“Agencies really are just beginning to offer training now — it just got embedded into the basic training academies last October,” said Greg Miraglia, a former deputy police chief who helped draft the bill. Miraglia is also the president of Out to Protect in California, which supports LGBTQ officers.
The combination of Covid-19 restrictions and the logistical difficulty of some police agencies to send their agents away to train are driving an increase in online training. Miraglia estimated that about 1,000 officers have participated in the online training so far and approximately 2,000 have taken part in in-person training.
“In-person training is really the best way to go, because you give people a live chance to interact and to get answers to their questions immediately,” he said. It’s interactive and offers scenarios for students to answer. Of course, the online course has all the same elements as a face-toface class. It’s definitely better than nothing.”
The State of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training will not certify anything less than two hours on the topic, with Miraglia recommending at least four hours of LGBTQ awareness training.
” We can cover the basics in just four hours. He said that cultural competence training is an important skill. It is essential to continue training on topics such as how to respond to domestic violence, and how to deal with hate crime victims who happen to be LGBT.
Across the country in New Jersey, on Nov. 20, 2019, Transgender Day of Remembrance, the state’s then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive announcing all law enforcement professionals in the state would receive mandated training on how to best interact with transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals. These new rules require officers to address everyone by their names and pronouns. This is even if they don’t match any official records. The directive includes elements that apply to the whole LGBTQ community. For example, officers are required to “not delay responding or fail to respond to any call or request for assistance due to the individual’s real or perceived gender identity, expression, and/or sexual orientation.”
Law enforcement officials must not reveal an individual’s sex at birth unless it is necessary for law enforcement purposes. Grewal stated that the directive was issued in response to the rise of hate crimes against transgender persons.
“Building on the extraordinary work of law enforcement agencies across this country and right here in New Jersey, we’re ensuring that our officers will act in ways that promote the dignity and safety of LGBTQ individuals, whether they are victims, witnesses, suspects, arrestees, or other members of the public,” Grewal said in a statement. “Only by having the trust of our diverse communities can we fulfill our mission of protecting all New Jersey residents.”
Some experts, like Mallory at the Williams Institute, say the increase in LGBTQ-specific police training is a positive step forward.
“In addition to helping the LGBTQ community, training can also help police departments do their jobs better, particularly those who are invested in community policing.” she stated. “These trainings can really help get to a place where LGBTQ communities feel comfortable working with law enforcement, and actually enable police to do their jobs better and more safely.”
Tailored LGBTQ training is an important development, according to Mallory, but it’s not the final step. It’s crucial that these initiatives include the notion that people with multiple marginalized identities could be at greater risk of being over-policed, which can lead to negative outcomes.
” LGBTQ people in communities of color may see the problems relating to over-policing becoming amplified,” Mallory said. “These issues need to be at the forefront of any kind of reform and training.”
Others, like Rosenberg and Cummings, are less optimistic.
” I don’t believe any type of sensitivity training can work,” Rosenberg stated. “A lot of us are past the point of any attempt to reform a very corrupt and broken system.”
For Cummings, a ground-up transformation of policing in the U.S. is the only way forward for law enforcement. In New York City — where LGBTQ training is provided by the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) for both new recruits and veteran officers — Cummings wants the police commissioner to be a civilian and rulings from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the NYPD’s oversight agency, be binding. They stated that the police budget was too high and they should be able to fund violence interrupters and harm reduction programs in the community. “Across the board, systemic racism is at play in policing. It goes beyond training and budget. This has been going on since the beginning of our country.”