Unfinished Business: Community Safety Act Needed to End Discriminatory Policing of LGBT New Yorkers
BY ANDREA RITCHIE | Just in time for Pride celebrations, the New York City Police Department issued a sweeping set of changes to its Patrol Guide this past June, giving officers much needed guidance in interactions with transgender and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers. As reported in the June 20 edition of Gay City News, the revisions to the department’s rulebook ban searches aimed at assigning gender based on anatomical characteristics. They also provide that officers must address, book, process, search, and house people according to their gender identity and expression, even it differs from the gender they were assigned at birth or that listed on their ID.
The announcement was welcome news, but there is much more to the story. These hard-won changes were the product not just of a year of high level negotiations between the NYPD and a team of advocates I had the privilege to be part of, but also decades of community organizing by transgender individuals and organizations across the city. They were called for by a 2005 Amnesty International report documenting a pattern of NYPD violations of the rights of LGBT people. They were the product of litigation brought by transgender women highlighting the department’s failure to train and supervise officers regarding how to determine gender for purposes of processing, searches, and detention, resulting in a widespread pattern and practice of conducting illegal searches –– including strip searches –– in order to assign gender. Finally, in 2008, after years of being presented with evidence of a serious problem, the NYPD reached out to community activists in search of a solution.
In response, a broad cross-section of LGBT organizations, service providers, and members of the transgender community came together under the name Trans Policy Advocates to research and draft a comprehensive set of proposed changes to the Patrol Guide, which touched on everything from profiling, street stops, and false arrests to searches and safe placement in NYPD custody. The proposals, hashed out over months of meetings, built on policies adopted after community consultation and negotiation in jurisdictions like San Francisco, Toronto, and the District of Colombia. After extended negotiations between members of the NYPD LGBT Advisory Panel and the commissioner’s legal advisors –– conducted with the essential support of Speaker Christine Quinn’s office –– a number of them were adopted and announced in June.
While the changes represent a significant victory for LGBT communities, more remains to be done. Effective implementation and diligent enforcement are essential to achieving real changes in day to day interactions between the NYPD and transgender and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers.
Not only did the changes make history in New York City, they have had ripple effects across the country. The original proposals and the changes adopted were circulated to community organizations in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans, where community groups have successfully negotiated similar changes to police practices. They were also shared with the US Department of Justice, which recently entered into a consent decree with the New Orleans Police Department unprecedented in the breadth and depth of provisions specifically protecting the rights of LGBT –– and particularly transgender –– people. Indeed, police departments in LA, Chicago, and New Orleans went further than the NYPD in some respects by adopting binding provisions aimed at putting a stop to profiling of LGBT people –– by clearly stating that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not constitute reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop, search, or arrest for any crime, including prostitution-related offenses.
Indeed, while the policy changes in New York address some aspects of police interactions with transgender and gender-nonconforming people while in custody, they do not address the profiling and discriminatory policing practices that lead LGBT people to come into custody in the first place.
A report released this week by Make the Road New York concerning interactions between police and LGBT people in Jackson Heights, Queens –– which, seven years later, is consistent with the findings of the Amnesty International report and reflects the realities organizations like the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), the LGBT Community Center, and Streetwise and Safe (SAS) have been documenting, advocating, and organizing around across the city for decades –– drives home the need for such a mandate in New York City. Similarly, recent reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Open Society Foundation concerning the NYPD’s use of possession of condoms as evidence of intent to engage in prostitution reveal continuing patterns of profiling of LGBT people, as well as persistent discrimination and abuse by NYPD officers.
Passage of the Community Safety Act, now before City Council, is essential to filling critical gaps in New York City’s response to discriminatory policing of LGBT communities that remain despite the Patrol Guide changes. The measure, developed in collaboration with Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a broad cross section of community organizations, including LGBT groups, policy advocates, and individuals from across the city who have been directly affected, is a set of four bills which would: (1) enact an historic, comprehensive, and, most importantly, enforceable ban on profiling based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, along with race, sex, age, immigration status, disability, HIV status, religion, housing status ,and occupation, (2) require officers who perform searches for which there is no legal basis other than a person’s consent to advise individuals of their rights and obtain proof of informed and voluntary consent and (3) to provide identifying information and a reason for a stop, and (4) create an Office of Inspector General charged with identifying patterns of discriminatory policing.
As persuasively argued by LGBTQ youth of color from Streetwise and Safe, who testified alongside advocates from AVP and HRW at the recent City Council hearings on the bills, passage of the Community Safety Act remains critical even in light of the Patrol Guide changes. One youth related how hard it was to exercise his right to not consent to a search during the three stops he experienced, and urged passage of the legislation to ensure that transgender and gender-nonconforming youth can effectively refuse “gender checks” during consensual street searches –– which were not addressed by the Patrol Guide changes. Another described widespread harassment and profiling of LGBTQ youth of color and a harrowing stop and search while dressed in tights and high-heeled boots during which not only was a search performed over their objection, but the officer threw in a “faggot” and a grope for good measure.
On October 23 and 24, LGBT people and groups will have another opportunity to make the case for the legislation as the City Council Civil Rights Committee holds field hearings in Brooklyn and Queens on the NYPD’s stop and frisk practices. And on October 25 at 7 p.m. at 147 West 24th Street, groups involved in negotiating the Patrol Guide changes will hold a community forum to answer questions about the changes and discuss next steps.
The history of the Patrol Guide changes is the story of the power of LGBT communities coming together to demand an end to discrimination and abuse in police custody. This week and beyond, we need to` keep up the drumbeat for real change in the NYPD’s practices. Because, despite our recent victory, the task of putting an end to discriminatory policing of LGBT New Yorkers is far from done.
Andrea Ritchie is a police misconduct attorney and co-coordinator of Streetwise and Safe (SAS), a proud member of Communities United for Police Reform.