The complexities of police/LGBTQ interactions in Pittsburgh

Interactions between members of the LGBTQ community and the Pittsburgh Police can be fraught with complexity, whether it be a domestic call or sorting out the potential for what would be classified as a hate crime.  Let me state here that crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are not recognized as hate crimes in Pennsylvania, but they are recognized on a federal level.  So for simplicity sake, I am going to use the term hate crime and leave it to another post to sort out the nuances of how a hate crime might be prosecuted under federal law. Legislation for Pennsylvania to include these as protected classes has been introduced.  We'll see.

2010 saw two somewhat high profile incidents involving alleged hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community.  I say alleged with intent, b/c the ensuing complex police relationship leaves us with very few answers. 

Now my understanding is that the number of documented and/or reported hate crimes against the LGBTQ community is very small.  The question at hand is whether the low numbers are due to a reluctance to report, a lack of diligence on the part of the Pgh Police or the simple fact that the crimes are not happening.

The reluctance to report and the sensitivity of the Pittsburgh Police are intimately tied together.  For any given situation, the nuances are really tough.  Did the Police intentionally not show up for the Dyke March for four years or was it miscommunication?  Did the lack of follow through filing a complaints with the CPRB or OMI reinforce the perspective that it wasn't worth their time?  Where did the accountability begin and end?  From my point of view, the police response during the 2010 Dyke March was perfectly appropriate, but there's a little inkling in the back of my head wondering if I hadn't kicked up such a damn fuss about it … I guess we'll see this year if they get the same support without a pghlesbian fuss.  On their own merits as citizens exercising their right to assemble and speak freely.

Therein lies the crux of the issue — how are we mutually accountable with the police officers, supervisors and City leaders to ensure our community is well-protected and served by the police force? 

In 2010, there was an incident in Bloomfield late in the evening  in which it was alleged that several members of our community were assaulted.  The incident generated outrage and a very large impromptu vigil.  To my knowledge, it did not generate a police report.  Ensuing conflicting reports on what actually transpired only served to reinforce the existing divide between the “gay” community and the queer community,  a fact evident by who showed up with a bull horn and who actually used it.  It also troubled elected officials who do not have relationships with individuals often most vulnerable to these types of crimes and least likely to attend meeting in the Mayor's conference room.  Thus, the onus is on the “gay” community to forge those connections and represent. 

Later in the summer, a bicyclist was assaulted near the East Liberty/Stanton Heights area of the City. This was a little different situation.  There were other similar assaults being reported.  The police were not on the scene quickly so the victim sought medical attention and tried to file a report after the fact which is a legitimate way to approach.  He and supporters voiced concerns that the police were not attunted to the fact that this might be a hate crime separate and apart from the other assaults. 

Complicated stuff.  It is challenging to file a police report.  The offices are not warm and welcoming, but built for efficiency and safety.  The police force is less staffed that you might think, putting these types of crimes far down on the priority list once the immediate safety of the victims has been determined.  I don't think the LGBTQ community has a clear sense of these realities and that is one serious problem.  Filing a police report, whether in the aftermath of a traumatic event or in the forbidding atmostphere of the Zone offices, is not always satisfying.  Sometimes the police are going to give unsatisfactory answers, such as referring incidents to magistrates and sometimes people are going to just say “screw it” and the cycle of unreported crimes continues. 

This leads to the following that need to be addressed.

Point one – the lack of information about the way the police operate.

Another blogger, Thomas Waters, (click link to read his take on the meeting) asked City Councilman Patrick Dowd to have a conversation about the Stanton Heights/East Liberty (henceforth, Zone 5) incident and perceived insensitivity of the police.  Dowd faciliated a meeting including Zone Commander Timothy O'Connor and the responding officer who promptly outed herself to the group.  They had a frank discussion about the realities I outlined above.  While they did not pursue a hate crime investigation, they did conceive of a plan to explore this issue of police sensitivity more closely.

I met with Dowd over coffee in late April 2011.  I had not heard of this initiative to explore the issues of police sensitivity to the LGBTQ community until his campaign manager, Mac Booker, brought it up at the Steel City Stonewall Endorsement meeting.  When we met, Dowd seemed surprised that I hadn't heard of this meeting.  He was counting on data from the LGBTQ community to drive next steps, which he believes will show that the police ARE appropriately sensitive.  He repeatedly emphasized his confidence in the police officers and their supervisors. 

He mentioned that the responding officer (I am intentionally witholding name) said the Pgh Police Force was a supportive and good place to work.  I don't doubt that's her experience, but I am incredibly skeptical that this is an accurate across the board statement.  Simply put, if this were true – there would be more openly LGBTQ police officers.  I asked Dowd if he had inquired within the department of personnel as to how many (numbers only, no names) members of the police department had applied for domestic partner benefits.  He admitted he hadn't thought of that and we went down a side path discussion about domestic partner benefits in the Department of Public Safety. 

Essentially, there are specific officers who are sensitive and do consider “identity” (his word) when investigating a crime.  That would hopefully include LGBTQ officers (we know they are there) as well as officers like the cop at the Dyke March who told me about his lesbian daughter.  But there's no evidence and without a show of good faith on the part of the police force, there's not going to be more reports made.  The barrier is much greater than the atmosphere in the zone buildings.

Point two – the LGBTQ acumen of the Pittsburgh Police Force

The solution is to create “safe havens” for LGBTQ persons to report crimes in the day or days after the incident.  For example, the bicyclist could go to Persad a few days later and receive support to have the police send a car to the Persad office to take the report.  Persad is in Zone 5. 

The eventual goal is to build the relationships necessary to convince the community to go to the Zone and file the reports because they feel affirmed and respected and have a sense of trust that their identity will be appropriately considered. 

Dowd is waiting for a year to pass which means in late August of this year, he'll be looking at the data to see how successful this initiative has been.  He's very careful to voice support for improving the police-LGBTQ relationship without blaming anyone for the problem, but he's candid enough to say that without reports little can be done.  He believes that the data will educate us on how police services are delivered to the LGBTQ community.

So this is a good step for Zone 5, but if you file in Zone 5 for a crime committed in another zone — there's a time lag as the information has to be passed to the appropriate zone. There's also the issue that it may take a long while the a car to show up  depending on other priorities.  Finally, the police may not take a report because the issue is more appropriately referred to a Magistrate. 

Three areas fraught with complication – going to the wrong place to report your crime, the uncertainty of a response time, and the need to follow through with the Magistrate for documentation purposes.  It doesn't make it a “bad” or unworkable plan, just one that requires a lot of good information.  It also needs to be considered a model for the other zones, each of which would need to identify a “safe haven” of their own.

Point three – shows of good faith on both sides

That's a good thing because it creates more positive relationships between the police and the LGBTQ community. 

I'd propose working with the entire City Council and the Zone Commanders to identify potential safe havens. 

Zone 2 – the Gay & Lesbian Community Center

Zone 1 – Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church

Zone 3 – Councilman Bruce Kraus' satellite office

Zone 4 – Rodef Shalom

Zone 6 – Focus on Renewal (no idea how gay friendly they are)

That's just off the top of my head. 

Another issue is that this is a top down issue.  The Administration sets the tone for the top brass and it trickles down.  It should gush down, but let's be realistic about change if change is warranted. 

I'd propose that Chief Harper send a high ranking member of his command force to speak at PrideFest.  Someone who is already trusted like Rashelle Brackney, Commander of Zone 1 or Thomas Stangrecki, Commander of Major Crimes.  Not a PR person.  A leader who can make solid commitments on behalf of their own teams. 

I also think the police should set up a booth at PrideFest.  That's where the PR people belong — explaining the procedures for filing reports, the way 911 prioritizes calls, the lack of units on the streets each shift (maybe they won't say that), and most importantly of all — listening to what the community has to say and taking that information back to Chief Harper. And Patrick Dowd who got this ball rolling. 

I dare say they should participate in the march, but let's start with basics.  Pridefest is the best way to reach thousands of LGBTQ persons, from the affluent white gay men to the mostly closeted working class queer identified folks.  That's where the police can show good faith on their part – stand on the stage and set up a booth.

Dowd made another insightful point.  If, as he believes, the police are providing sensitive responses to crimes involving the LGBTQ community, leaders on both sides should be cultivating that organic relationship to get Pittsburgh to the point where we have openly gay and lesbian officers who are involved in recruitment. 

He's ambitious, eh?  🙂

Dowd believes all officers should be liaisons, but I disagree a bit.  After Pridefest is over and things get back to day to day, it would send another show of good faith to the community if Chief Harper appointed an official liaison to the community — someone from his team.  This would permit leaders in our community to go right to the top when there's a situation to be addressed.  This would also create open lines of communication between all leaders as to what tools need to be utilized — CPRB, OMI, reports, magistrates, etc. 

I do think boiling this down to the first step is a smart move on Dowd's part.  He's an academic and he knows the value of hard data.  If we can't convince people to file reports, we are heading nowhere.  I think his “safe haven” approach has merit and I'll be interested to see the results this fall.  Let's be precise though.  He's collecting data on how crimes are reported and hopes to demonstrate the police are sensitive to LGBTQ identity.  It gets a little sticky when you try to define a hate crime since there is no legal definition for the police force to use.  It also gets a little sticky when someone uses the safe haven approach to report a crime that is not identity related because they feel safer doing so.  Further complicating the issue are situations where the alleged perpetrator is also LGBTQ. 

My personal opinion is that the police force is not necessarily LGBTQ friendly.  I supect your average police officer doesn't give a damn about sexual orientation when taking a report because they see horrors every day so a same sex couple reporting a robbery isn't exactly shocking.  Does that mean they are respectful and/or sensitive to the potential for a hate crime?  No. When you factor in crimes involving the transgender and transexual communities, you add an entire other level of complexity and sensitivity.  I suspect “fag” is not an uncommon expletive in the sense of demeaning any man, not just gay men.  I suspect openly gay male police officers don't exist and I can count the number of openly lesbian police officers on one hand (and the not openly lesbian police officers on the other).  I'd love to see that personnel data (not names, of course). 

But I also think that can change.  Dowd's conversations are important because it sends a message to the community that City Council cares about these issues.  It also is pretty cool to have police officers out themselves in a group setting.  And I'm sure the police appreciate Dowd's faith in their sensitivity to these issues. 

When I voiced my doubts, he asked me if I could faciliate conversations between openly lesbian police officers and community leaders. Others are attempting to do that so I don't want to step on anyone's toes.  I'm up for trying to help.  Right after Commander Stangrecki comes to Pridefest. 

Where Dowd and I disagree is the point of who moves first in the chess game.  It isn't a game, it is an analogy so don't beat me up over it.  I think the public servants should show good faith even before this year of data accumulation is completed.  I think the people most vulnerable to crime are furthest from the locus of LGBTQ influence and access.  Dowd did acknowledge that I'm less likely to be treated poorly by the police because I am educated on what I should expect and (hopefully) would have the presence of mind to demand it when reporting a crime, hate based or otherwise. 

There's plenty of room for growth.  Check out what DC Liasion Unit is doing.  And units around the country here.  Tampa had an openly lesbian Chief. (first woman, too).  Charlotte NC has formal forums.  The opportunity is there. 

I'm hoping to have more informationi from Persad on this project.  In the meantime, Dowd is up for reelection and kudos to him for taking on a sensitive issue when he would be seeking the endorsement of the FOP and the LGBTQ community.  I have no doubt Dowd sincerely believes what he says and I am confident he was reporting accurately from his meetings.  I also believe he'll follow up.

And kudos to Thomas Waters for getting the issue of police sensitivity to the LGBTQ community on Dowd's radar.  I'll be interested to see where their collaboration will lead next once the year has passed. 

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  • Sue,
    There have been meeting with the Mayor's LGBT Advisory Council and Chief Harper is planning on leading the Pride Awareness March this year.
    Also Tom Waters and Chris Bryan with Delta have been actively working to have a law enforcement area at PrideFest. The City of Pittsburgh Police will have a large presence as well as the FBI, DA, and Human Relations Commission (County and City).
    More details to follow!

  • come on, that liberty ave incident was just an angry drag queen bashing back. and i'm all for that, in theory.
    yes, it sucks to be called names, but when you're the one who takes it to the physical level, i'm sorry but that's not a gay bashing.
    they were pissed they got their asses beat. they would've been singing a totally different tune had they come out on top with no nasty bruises to show off.
    and, the woman at the vigil who told the story about being gay bashed was just out-and-out lying. how do i know that? because we have a mutual friend who is far more trustworthy, knew her when the incident happened, realized there were details missing in her story, and questioned her about it until she got the truth.
    the bike incident is tougher. i have mutual friends with the victim who claim it was different than all the other bike bashings, and was instead a hate crime based on his sexuality. this sounds a bit ridiculous when you know he was waiting for a light to change in highland park. the only notable difference is that every other bike harassment victim i've heard of has been white. if anything, he was beaten because he wasn't the “right” kind of black.
    how the hell are we going to solve the problems in the PBP if the people who accuse them of wrongdoing aren't telling the truth or simply have an ax to grind? or, how do you solve a problem that doesn't exist? yes, they've been wronged, but they aren't helping the situation by not being honest brokers.
    bev smith says there's no black community; i attest there is even less of a queer community.

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