The police departments of most major cities have made significant efforts to reach out to their LGBTQ communities in the past 10 years through better training and active recruitment of gay and lesbian officers. But Washington, D.C., has gone even further: its Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) was formed with the mission to make sure LGBTQ citizens are protected.
D.C.’s GLLU, headed by Police Sergeant Jessica Hawkins, who is transgender, was established in the late 1990s, after two lesbian officers saw the need and advocated for it. “Hate crimes were being dramatically underreported,” Hawkins says. “The idea was to let the LGBT community know we’re available and to get rid of fear of police inside the community.”
Besides Hawkins, the GLLU has five core officers, and two affiliate officers who rotate through on a temporary basis. GLLU officers identify “hot spots” based on trends in crimes against LGBTQ people and saturate those areas, much like how Philadelphia law enforcement uses GunStat to focus their efforts on the places where data shows the most shootings occur. They also respond to crimes involving the LGBTQ community, assisting in the investigation, offering support to victims and helping to arrange hospital care. They respond to crimes of all seriousness, from murder to burglary. They are a small unit and can’t make it to every scene, Hawkins admits, but they follow up after the fact on all LGBTQ-related crimes.
According to Hawkins, half the current unit identifies as LGBTQ and the other half as “allies.” Potential officers must undergo a screening process—“We talk to their coworkers, talk to everyone. We find out what their reputation is like with the LGBT community,” she says.—and must not have any LGBT-related complaints filed against them. Selected officers then undergo the 40 hours of training required for all of DC’s special liaison units (DC also has units specifically for the protection of the Latino community, the Asian-American community, and the deaf and hard of hearing community), in which they learn about things like the gender spectrum, the difference between gender expression and gender identity, and the meaning of other terms like intersex and gender nonconforming.
In 2005, GLLU members investigated over 300 cases of same-sex domestic violence; 52 hate crimes were reported for the year; and the unit had a homicide case closure rate of over 95 percent
Has it been effective? In 2006, the unit received an Innovations in American Government award from Harvard University, which came with a $100,000 check. “Rather than waiting for gay community members to approach them, the GLLU reaches out to the gay community members in their own environments,” the award committee wrote. “By integrating themselves in the gay community, the GLLU officers not only establish themselves as trustworthy but also identify key information sources for future investigations.”
According to Harvard’s analysis, before the unit’s establishment, no same-sex domestic violence cases had been investigated, and in 1998, only two hate crimes were reported. In 2005, GLLU members investigated over 300 cases of same-sex domestic violence; 52 hate crimes were reported for the year; and the unit had a homicide case closure rate of over 95 percent.
In May of 2015, GLLU Officer Justin Markiewicz was one of 10 honorees, along with former Attorney General Eric Holder, to receive a Hero award from Capital Pride. “Justin has worked tirelessly to help improve the relationship between the LGBT community and the police department,” says the organization’s website.
Could it work in Philly? It was, in fact, our own Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey who formed the unit when he was in DC. When Ramsey took office in Philadelphia in 2008, he said he hoped to implement a similar unit here. “Modeled on the pioneering, award-winning detachment he created in Washington in 2000, it would include two or three officers and a base in Center City’s ‘gayborhood,’” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. At that time, Ramsey also enumerated plans to have all police—not just new recruits—undergo “gay-sensitivity training” over the following two to three years.
But it hasn’t happened yet and Ramsey’s office indicated that there were no plans to implement a liaison unit within the PPD any time soon. “Commissioner Ramsey found that the situation in Philly didn’t require a concerted unit in the same way that DC did,” says PPD spokesperson Lieutenant John Sanford. “We don’t want to segregate our officers; if anything that creates more problems. We want all officers to respect every citizen regardless of race, sexual orientation, or anything else.”
Instead, the Philly PD has a LGBTQ liaison “committee,” a group established in 1998 under Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, and composed of police personnel, community members, and prominent members of the LGBT community. The committee holds regular meetings in Center City and invites LGBTQ residents to bring them grievances and concerns. It does not initiate contact with the gay community or investigate crimes.
That difference is crucial. A forum at Rutgers-Camden this past April revealed that LGBTQ Philadelphians still feel they are singled out for police surveillance and arrest. As recently as 2013, several LGBTQ leaders told Next City and The Philadelphia Inquirer that fear of discrimination and harassment still causes Philadelphia’s queer community to underreport hate crimes and domestic disturbances.
The killing that year of Diamond Williams, a transgender woman, and the unsolved deaths of three other trans women—Nizah Morris, Kyra Kruz and Blahnik Lee—in recent years remain emblems of violence. An independent commission hired to investigate the death of Morris shortly after her release from police custody noted that she “was a trans woman and the mysterious circumstances of her death have left Philadelphia’s LGBT community fearful and marginalized.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Commissioner and police liaison to the LGBTQ community Kevin Bethel says he has never heard of DC’s GLLU unit. “I didn’t know [Ramsey] had done that in the past,” he noted. He also had never heard of the murder of trans woman London Chanel. “Who was that?” he asked. “Was that a couple years back?” Chanel was murdered on May 18, 2015.
Which hearkens back to what Commissioner Ramsey said of the LGBT community in 2008: “They don’t have faith that the police will do something.”