D.C. Police Sgt. Brett Parson Discusses Trangender Killings

When Metropolitan Police Sgt. Brett Parson arrives for an interview in a local coffee shop, he's already been up for 18 hours, since he got a 3 a.m. call informing him of the vicious shooting of a transgendered woman, the latest in a long string of such assaults (see Disposable People).

He won't be going to bed any time soon, either. First, he has to meet with a young gay dancer from a local club who's been sexually assaulted but is uncertain if he wants to press charges.

This is a fairly typical day for Parson, who heads up the Washington, D.C., department's acclaimed Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU), which was created in June 2000 and is composed of openly gay and lesbian members of the department and their allies. Members of GLLU assist in criminal investigations, but they also reach out to communities of sexual minorities.

Although much distrust still remains between police officers and gays, lesbians and transgendered people, Parson's unit has made great strides in improving this often charged relationship.

Parson himself is gay. He is also very much a cop's cop, a man with an infectious sense of humor who says he prefers "kicking doors in" and arresting criminals to singing "Kumbaya."

Still, he points out that in a week, his unit will receive an award from an African-American transgender group. "I don't know of any other police unit ever getting an award from the transgender community," he says with a chuckle. "That's for sure."

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: There was a notorious incident in 1995 involving a transgendered woman, Tyra Hunter, who'd been in a car accident.

Once the responding firefighters realized she was a transgendered person, they stopped treating her. She was also refused treatment by a doctor at the hospital and died. Her mother sued the city and won in 1999.

Was the creation of the GLLU a response to that?

BRETT PARSON: No, it was more a response to two lesbian officers who did some research into hate crimes. The results were staggering and embarrassing.

In 1998, Maryland and Virginia reported about 200 hate crimes, total. D.C. reported two. You can see what the problem was!

The officers put together a proposal that said, we think two things are at play here, particularly in the gay community: One, our cops are not trained properly. They don't know what questions to ask, and then once they get the information, they don't know what the hell to do with it.

Secondly, people in this community don't trust us or like us. That's a historical problem because of the violence that's traditionally occurred between law enforcement and the GLBT [gay/lesbian/ bisexual/transgendered] community.

The chief made those two liaisons, but gave them no resources at all. They survived about a year, and were instrumental in solving an anti-gay murder at Gallaudet University because they were able to talk to gay deaf students there.

But after that, they were very frustrated, and so they made three recommendations to the chief: "You need a gay boy, you need a gay boy that has some rank, and you need a gay boy that has rank and doesn't give a damn what people think about him."

IR: And you fit the profile?

PARSON: Well, I didn't volunteer, let's put it that way. I was in charge of the major narcotics strike force at the time, and was very happy there and didn't want to be the gay poster child.

But I got a call from the chief's office asking, "How would you feel about it?" I said, "No." And they said, "Well, you were already transferred. We just want to know how you feel about it." I've been here ever since.

IR: How do you feel about it now?

PARSON: This is a really nice job. I work primarily with people who are talented, caring, incredible people in the community. The downside is that I'm not doing the kind of police work that I became an officer to do. That oftentimes frustrates me.

I don't really want to be sitting inside Caribou Coffee on Friday night; I want to be responding to calls and chasing people and getting in fights and shoot-outs and things like that.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that the chief did the right thing in keeping us alive. And unfortunately, I don't think I'll be out of a job any time soon. We still have a lot of officers that are not up to par on how to deal with the GLBT community, and the relationship with this community still isn't where it needs to be.

IR: Are there other units like yours in other police departments?

PARSON: I do not believe there is another unit of this kind in the country. There are gay and lesbian liaison units all over the place, but what we do is not just outreach, the huggy-feely, "Kumbaya" stuff that all liaison units should be doing.

We police. We're on the street. We patrol the areas where the GLLU community is visible. We attend events where police have never gone before, and there are many of those! And we investigate crimes — by and against the GLBT community.

Many people think, what the hell's the difference? An assault's an assault, a robbery is a robbery. But there is some specificity when you're dealing with same-sex relationships, when you're dealing with sexual assaults on the same gender, or when you're dealing with hate crimes. It takes a specialization for that.

I can tell by the calls I'm getting from other agencies around the country, using us as a resource, that this isn't what goes on elsewhere. What they have is usually one or two people assigned to go to the local pride festival, to show up at community meetings and say, "Hi, we care about you."

But we do training, education, outreach and law enforcement, 24/7.