There's been a long history in the United States of tension between the police and the transgender community. In fact, the August 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco and the June 28, 1969 Stonewall Riots that are considered the start of the United States GLBT civil rights movement have a similar root cause:
GLBT people finally getting fed up with being harassed by police.
So it didn't suprise me when Amnesty International released on September 22, 2005 the first in a series of reports that documented what we in the transgender community have known, talked about and experienced for years. Despite the major gains we've made over the last 40 years in having our civil rights recognized and respected, the problem of police harassment still persists.
Called Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in the United States, the Amnesty International report revealed that transgender people experienced some of the most egregious cases of police brutality.
AI heard reports of transgender individuals being subjected by police to discriminatory profiling as sex workers; “policing” of transgender individuals bathroom use; sexual, verbal and physical abuse; inappropriate and illegal searches to determine a transgender individual’s “true” sex; and a failure to protect transgender individuals from abuse while in detention.
A subsequent report was released in March 2006 called Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay and Transgender People in the U.S. that documents serious patterns of police abuse, including incidents amounting to torture and ill-treatment. It also points out that GLBT persons of color are particularly vulnerable to this abuse and it is compounded by the systemic racism and homophobia prevalent in many US police forces. GLBT peeps are also singled out for selective enforcement of "morals regulations," bars and social gatherings regulations, demonstrations and "quality of life" ordinaces.
How serious is the problem? In San Antonio, one of the four cities profiled in the September 2005 report, veteran police officer Dave Gutierrez was convicted and sentenced on January 19 to 24 years and four months in prison for raping and assaulting then 21 year old transwoman Starlight Bernal during a June 10, 2005 traffic stop.
It's also come to light that the investigation into transwoman Nizah Morris' death in Philadelphia is pointing disturbing fingers at the police. The recent classification of transwoman Erica Keel's death as an accident has exacerbated tensions between the Philadelphia police department and the transgender community to the point that it became an issue in the Philadelphia mayor's race.
The negativity affects us in multiple ways. The police failing to act, or being openly (or covertly) hostile to transgender people affects their attitudes toward solving crimes committed against us.
That lack of action emboldens people who wish to bring harm to us. They assume that the police, their ministers, society and the justice system are on their side and they'll get away with committing the crime against us. Previous cases in which people were prosecuted for committing murders against transgender people that received little or ridiculously low sentences feed into that perception. The 'trans panic' defenses that attorneys use to get their clients off also don't help along with the reluctance of prosecuters to use hate crimes statutes if they happen to have one in their jurisdiction that covers us. That has the unfortunate effect of encouraging crimes to be committed against us, not deterring it.
The drama between us and the police means that many transpeople are reluctant to report crimes when they occur because of the fear you'll get even more harrasment from the officer that's supposed to help you. If you think I'm kidding, ask JoLea Lamot's family what happened on November 24, 1998 when her mother Nancy called 911 on JoLea's behalf because they feared she'd accidentally overdosed on some medication.
The late Marvin Zindler used to say on his reports back home that 'it's hell to be poor'. It's also hell to be transgender. One message that needs to be made loud and clear is that we transpeople are taxpaying citizens as well. We don't need the po-po's adding to the drama we already get just for living our lives.
Serving and protecting the public also includes us as well.