Major Odetta Johnson, Richmond Police’s New LGBT Liaison Officer Is A Sign of Things to Come
It’s just after 4 PM on a semi cloudy December afternoon. I’m at Lamplighter again, because the coffee is good and the atmosphere is easy going. I’m sipping from a mug and keeping an eye on my phone’s clock. I’m meeting with a police officer in a few minutes, and I don’t want to muck it up.
The LGBT community has a rocky history when it comes to police interaction. It’s easy to look back and find standout moments when the police mistreated our community – the 1969 Stonewall Riots, as well as numerous additional gay club arrests through out the 80′s. Even today, police continue to single out members of the LGBT community here in America, especially in the South. Hell, sodomy was against the law in the Commonwealth until this past summer. So any steps by a police force to become more welcoming to the LGBT community can be a little hard to imagine.
But it’s almost 2014, and the gains LGBT folks have made seem to show that times are changing. Even if VA continues to ban marriage for same-sex couples, things are happening at the local level – and the meeting I’m about to have is a sign of that.
Meet Major Odetta Johnson. In her mid 40′s, Maj. Johnson is a powerful looking woman. She’s a Richmond native; her father, who died when she was 14, was a police officer, and her mother worked in juvenile correction for over 30 years. She’s always had a sense for doing what’s right, and the self-proclaimed workaholic has an impressive record to show for it.
She entered the Army reserves 26 years ago and retired in 2011. She served a tour of duty in Iraq and ended her time in the military as an Equal Opportunity Advisor. All the while, she worked her way up through RPD, working in multiple divisions.
She started on patrol for two years, then moved to the organized crime division; she worked in undercover prostitution stings and even found her way into the forensics department. All of this occurred during Richmond’s darkest crime days. “There were maybe five homicides in a weekend,” remembers Johnson. “I could be working a homicide and hear another shooting. And back then we weren’t working with partners, so I’d get calls ‘How long is forensics gonna be on the scene..’ so instead of having 31 homicides like we have now, we’d have over 100. So the city has come a long way.”
But she stayed through it. Johnson calls it a love of helping people, and its something she’s tried to pass onto her own children. “If you introduce them early, that’s what they’ll want to do,” she says behind a huge smile.
Things weren’t always so serious. It didn’t take much for me to get Johnson to open up, but she claims she was shy as a child. Believe it or not, beauty pageants in high school were the key to her getting out of her introvert phase. “That was the thing back then,” Johnson said. It also got her scholarships for college in addition to the academic scholarships she received – either way, the stage time got her over her fear of public speaking. “I am (outgoing) for my job, and dealing with the community, but mostly at home I enjoy quiet time.”
As we settle in more, and the sun set behind us, I start to talk to Johnson about her new role as RPD’s LGBT liaison. She’s noticably excited – Johnson obviously loves a good project and she spoke confidently about her ability to rise to the occasion.
“Its about communicating and providing the proper service. We can’t cater it to each individual, but we can cater it to the point we’re providing exceptional service,” said Johnson. “And I can’t provide it if I’m trying to pretend I know what it is you need.”
This theme of communication was present throughout our conversation. Johnson says the RPD wants to use this liaison position as a chance to not only benefit the LGBT community, but also make positive changes within themselves – and it’s these communication lines and new contacts from within the community that she hopes will foster the change.
“People often act out in fear and ignorance when they don’t understand,” said Johnson. “And this is opening a door for a lot of great things – it’s not just a one way thing where the community itself is benefiting. The police department and our city is going to benefit. I think City Council and the Mayor saw that when they wrote their proclamations. We’re growing as a city, there’s different populations and groups growing. How do you make sure you’re inclusive? When people reach out to you, you go for it, because it’s a great way to get better.”
Since the creation of her position, RPD has taken some monumental steps here in Richmond’s LGBT community. For the first time ever, RPD had a recruitment booth at Pride, and Chief Tarasovic spoke during the Pride events. In November, Tarasovic and Johnson were in the audience for Richmond’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. Chief Tarasovic even read the Mayor’s proclamation declaring Nov. 20th Richmond’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. All of this, again, was a first for the department.
Major Johnson at VA Pride 2013
Gauging the need for police involvement in a community is hard, especially in Richmond where LGBT related crime isn’t reported often. The concept of an LGBT Liaison has grown more rapidly over the last decade. Washington DC was the first to build a program around the issue and it has since become a national model.
I spoke with DC’s LGBT Liasion, Captain Edward Delgado, earlier this year and he detailed how their program started from a few concerned officers noticing a need for an under-represented population. Their program, according to Cap. Delgado came down to “building relationships based on mutual respect and trust to provide exceptional support to the citizens of the district of Colombia.”
We ran a poll on GayRVA around the same time I started looking into LGBT Liasion programs. We asked if our readers felt safe holding hands with their significant other in public – just holding hands, nothing more than a simple expression of love between two people. About 300 of you responded, and over 60% of you said you didn’t. I consider myself part of that majority. This, I thought, was an interesting benchmark for RPD – how could they reduce this number, and how did it feel to hear this concern within the community?
“That gives me concern. Not about public safety, but about folks’ perception of public safety. And if you don’t feel safe, it becomes a concern for me,” said RPD Chief Tarasovic. “What I hope to portray across all folks in Richmond is that they perceive RPD with no bias.” And Johnson’s appointment is very much part of that push.
Johnson recalls when Tarasovic approached her about the position. “Odetta, I’m picking you, and I don’t second guess myself,” Johnson said. Tarasovic is a straightforward guy, and the short conversation I had with the Chief reflected that.
One benchmark of a really inclusive Police department is if they can awknowledge the existence of LGBT members under their authority. When I spoke with RPD’s Major Steve Drew a few months back and ask him this question, he stuttered before saying he couldn’t answer. Chief Tarasovic, however, had a response in line with what any good boss would say.
“I don’t ask people what their orientation is. And so I don’t have a measuring stick for folks,” said Tarasovic. “Is it my expectation that I have LGBT members? I have 900 employees, one would assume that some of those employees are. People’s professional life is what I’m concerned with. Obviously their personal life becomes my concern if they are doing wrong. But there is not wrongdoing about your sexual orientation.”
Tarasovic said Johnson was perfect for the new position, describing her as personable and mission oriented. “All my contacts in the community are very important to me and so I thought Maj. Johnson would serve this function very well. And she has, in the few months it’s been going on.”
Yes, the position had been in place for some time now – it wasn’t necessarily secret, but Johnson explained why making the position front and center wasn’t at the top of their list of priorities.
“We didn’t want media attention to overshadow the good work our department was doing,” said Johnson. “This wasn’t done for media attention, this was done because we want to build partnerships and be proactive.”
Tarasovic echoed this sentiment, saying “I didn’t want to trot out some facade. If this had stayed under wraps for the next five years, and we were still doing the good work that we’re doing, it would happen.”
We’ve got a long way till that five year mark. But with Tarasovic and Johnson at the helm of the RPD ship, we might see an incredible transition happen within our local police force. To hear Johnson describe it, it’s really impressive to behold. She says she’s reaching out to the youth at a time when they need it most.
“They should be able to be free to love who they want to love when they grow up.”
Johnson even compared the current struggle transgender folks face to those her African-American ancestors faced in the past. “People shouldn’t have to have choices about which bathroom I want to go into without feeling like it’s such a large issue. These are things we have to start dealing with now, and things we need to bring to the table. I wouldn’t want to have to decided if I go to the the black or white water fountain. That is painful, and hurtful, and very emotional… these are things we need to be conscious of as we move forward. Referring to people in the correct gender – its a major thing.”
Chief Tarasovic and Maj. Johnson at TDOR 2013
So what does the Major see herself doing? A new title is great for a police department to roll out and flaunt, though so far it seems this is definitely not RPD’s intention. There are still some uncertainties, and GayRVA promises to press RPD on any future LGBT related issues, but one thing Maj. Johnson promised, even though Virginia lacks state-level hate crime legislation, was to make sure all crimes they conclude to be hate crimes will be reported to federal agencies.
“If we get a case where its obvious it was a crime against someone for their sexual orientation, will we report it? Yes…. at the state level we don’t have that option, but if we know, we would report it.”
That, along with the numerous steps Johnson and Tarasovic have already taken speak volumes to RPD’s commitment to the LGBT community. And to all the nay-sayers who think we don’t need a LGBT liaison, Johnson has a message:
“If we keep accommodating people and walking on egg shells, we’ll never progress and grow. And we want to attract people to our city that understand we are inclusive. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s just starting.”
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