Officers must often protect and serve members of special groups. Providing this service can bring challenges that demand agency guidance or targeted training.
One such group that has rarely been seen or contacted by officers in the past has become empowered to step out and live openly in their communities. They are the transgender individuals.
On every continent there is at least one culture that gives social recognition to individuals who don't fit the gender binary of male or female. Only until recently has medicine made it possible to match the individual to their appearance with surgical procedures. Our Western societies have forced these individuals underground (into "the closet") to survive by avoiding ridicule and persecution.
Being transgender has nothing to do with who you are attracted to for sex; it is not attached to sexual attraction identifiers such as being gay, lesbian, or bi-sexual. You can be transgender and also be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, straight, or none of the above. Being trans is about your gender identity; it's who you feel and know you are. Our society develops a spectrum of gender possibilities from ultra-masculine to ultra-feminine and every variation in-between.
So why is this issue a challenge for law enforcement and corrections? Suppose you stop an individual for a traffic violation and the driver, by all appearances, is a male. Yet, when you obtain the driver's license, it gives the legal name as Jane and shows the sex as "(F)emale." My students often respond to this example by assuming the subject is trying to conceal their true identity.
Other issues present themselves. During an arrest, who would do the pat-down? Would you address the subject as James or Jane, ma'am or sir, and he or she in your report? Anyone know the gender-neutral pronouns? If I had to be incarcerated, would I be placed with the male population because of the way I currently look or with the female population because of the physical attributes I was identified as having at birth?
Either way presents a dilemma for officers and administration, especially when safety of the transgender person or the other inmates is part of the decision process of placement for confinement. What about the prescription medicines I carry? Will you take them away or let me continue with them?
Normal reactions to meeting someone for the first time who is transgender is usually at first curiosity and then fear and disgust. Often times, it is the fear that encourages us to react with disbelief, skepticism, or intolerance. Being transgender is not contagious or a mental illness, yet some officers still make jokes, mock, and tease someone who is different from them. They bully, harass, disrespect, insult, and hurt persons that don't fit into their idea of what a person's gender identity.
As a result of officer harassment, the LAPD had to create policy to stop its officers from conducting crotch pat downs to determine the "real gender" of a person. In the Chicago area, the Cicero (Ill.) Police Department was ordered to pay $10,000 for harassment of a transgender individual that they "stopped, searched, and harassed," reports the Chicago Tribune.
As of September, the Chicago Police Department now has a general order on how its officers will conduct themselves with transgender individuals. Other metro-sized departments have begun outreach initiatives, created policies, and assigned special liaisons to work with transgender communities. Agencies want to avoid situations where officers take out frustrations and fear against unique persons.
In 2002, San Francisco Police were slapped with a $25 million lawsuit claiming officers allegedly harassed and demeaned a transgender person, by laughing and making fun after purposely exposing the person to officers of both sexes, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. The suit is ongoing.
Other lawsuits are being pushed into the courts. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Justice released decisions that identify and protect the rights of transgender persons.
In a recent national survey of the transgender communities, nearly 46% said they were uncomfortable with seeking police assistance. They made statements such as, "Enough of this harassment comes from cops that I can't imagine a situation in which I'd either report it to the police or want them to intervene."
Officers will be challenged to work with and respect transgender individuals rights regarding the use of public restrooms and other traditionally sex segregated facilities. Officers will have to be able to recognize hate crimes within the LGBT community and within LGBT couples for proper investigations.
Our schools are currently addressing harassment and bullying problems. How many of these situations arise out of children being targets because of LGBT issues? All of these examples are areas are where law enforcement must step up, train, and educate themselves to be prepared to respond appropriately.
We face many things on the street every daily that can bring harsh judgments and lawsuits. This is one area where simple training and awareness would go a long way toward protecting the rights of people not commonly understood by officers.
I encourage departments to add a unique individual to a civil lawsuit mitigation program and provide group training to assist officers with the challenge they face on the street. Awareness is knowledge. Knowledge is empowering. Being empowered allows for compassion and understanding for both communities.
James Parlow is a retired police officer with 15 years of experience. He currently serves as a Minnesota P.O.S.T. coordinator at Winona State University where he is an assistant professor specializing in law enforcement instruction.