Regional police leaders gather to discuss how LGBTQs interact with law enforcement
Late last January, high ranking members of three local police departments gathered at the Gay Community center of Richmond to hear concerns and take questions from the local LGBTQ community.
Organized by Sage, Richmond’s group for aging LGBTQ populations, the event opened with an intro from GCCR President Bill Harrison.
“Sometimes its hard to imagine how far we’ve come, we always expect the worse of other people,” said Harrison as he described the nearly one and a half year-long process he and other local advocates went through before contacting Richmond Police.
As it happened, Harrison and other members of the community were invited to speak at a training event for RVA-area emergency responders at an event called “Everything you wanted to know about LGBTQ’s but were afraid to ask.”
Hairrson thought no one would show up, but sure enough the room was almost full when the lecture started. And the first person in the room was Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic.
“It’s taken us months for us to try and reach out to you,” Harrison said to Tarasovic.
“Why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?” Tarasovic replied – Turns out he was excited to learn more and told Harrison he didn’t think his force was representing the LGBTQ community well.
Fast forward nearly two years later, and Richmond Police, as well as Henrico and Chesterfield, all have LGBTQ liaisons or point of contacts to act as go-to’s for local LGBTQ concerns. Training is now in place for all the departments, lead by folks at ROSMY and other groups, to help education police officers about the unique issues gay folks face.
“We know there are a number of people in our community who will probably not dial 911 when they need help,” said Harrison as to why police involvement in the community was so important from domestic violence complaints between same-sex couples to drag queen being accosted at night as they leave bars.
No matter the concern, the four police representatives were ready and willing to address the crowd of about 20 people’s concerns.
The officers in attendance for the Community Conversation were Major Kevin Smith (top right), the Department Uniform Ops Commander, and Corporal Elliot Anderson (top second from right) both from Chesterfield PD, Captain Linda Tony (top left), community services officer from Henrico, and Richmond PD’s LGBT Liaison Major Odetta Johnson (second from left).
Odetta, Anderson and Tony have all since attended Virginia Pride events with recruiting booths in the hopes of growing their LGBTQ workforce – a point all the speakers stressed was important.
“Reflecting the community in patrol is always an issue in police work…” said Major Smith. “To change a police department’s attitude… appearance, and how they reach out to the community, well we want to make people who are gay and lesbian feel free to be police officers, we need them, they have a perspective we need and talents we need.”
Smith, who has been working with Chesterfield police since he was a teenager, said he’s seen these kind of attitude changes in his over 30 years of service.
“I remember when I was a teenager, riding with police officers, there was only one black male in Chesterfield PD. And I remember when there were only 2 female police officers in the entire department,” he said. “I knew what the attitudes were.”
But Smith said, as the department became more diverse, he saw changes in attitudes as well.
“Certain things become unacceptable. People say “Hey, I know this person. How can i say that about his race?”” he said.
Captain Tony echoed the importance of having a diverse police force, saying the only way things get better is when “we have such a diverse group that represents the community that we live in.”
Corporal Anderson stressed the positive effect training has had on his police officers, specifically some of the work his department has done with ROSMY on LGBTQ teen suicide prevention.
“I think it’s been a great relationship so far,” he said.
He admitted when he took on the role as Chesterfield’s LGBT Point of Contact in Sept. 2013, he had a lot of questions, but he’s reached out to folks like Harrison and local trans-activist Kari Abrams for help.
“I’m an ally for the community,” he said. “So this has taken a lot for me to read and call people and ask ‘I’m not sure sure about this, can you explain it’ cause I’m not clear, but its been a good relationship building.”
Major Odetta Johnson has been more of a fixture in local LGBTQ events – attending both Richmond’s Transgender Day of Remembrance and World AIDS Day in 2014.
She stressed it was important for her for LGBTQ officers to be comfortable in the workplace.
“Whether or not someone feels comfortable with pictures of their mate on their desk… or coming and putting together a support group in our police department,” said Major Johnson. “We want to build and sustain relationships.”
She also said sometimes discrimination may occur, but LGBTQ folks might not report it because it wasn’t violent or directly harmful.
“People may not know that it is a problem. They might think “hey, I had an interaction and I didn’t get beat up and that was great,”’ she said, comparing it to civil rights struggles faced by people of color. “Because these are things that were dealt with in the 60’s from the black perspective.”
The rest of the hour long meeting involved taking questions from attendees and sharing stories from the speaker’s many years on the force.
Despite Harrison’s fears early in the process of contacting Richmond Police, the meeting in late January showed a sea change for a man who remembers when being gay was enough to get arrested in the Commonwealth.
“This is 2015, not 1975,” said Harrison after the event. “Our local police have been open to our concerns and very responsive in developing trainings and procedures to address those issues.”
To say Harrison has been thrilled by recent police interactions is an understatement, and now he still looks back at the hesitation he and other local advocates had and laughs.
“This is but one more example that demonstrates that so often all we need to do is listen to each other and not prejudge anyone.”
I want people to leave with knowledge of what their community center does,”March 31, 2015
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