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

IR: So now, two years into the effort, how many hate crimes did the District report in 2002?

PARSON: We just reported 17. It's up well over 600% since 1998. That's good. It's a sign that we're slowly building the trust that we need to have with this community and that we're educating our officers to the point where they're actually reporting these things.

IR: Transgendered people say that it's more dangerous in Washington for them than even for gays and lesbians. Do you agree?

PARSON: Perception is 90% of everything. If they perceive that it's dangerous, then it's dangerous.

Of course, the transgender community is not just one kind of individual. You have everything from transsexuals to transvestites to drag queens to drag kings to commercial street sex workers. Then you have folks who completely assimilate into the community and pass.

There's no doubt that members of the transgender community in Washington, D.C., who are people of color are being victimized at a much higher rate than those who are not people of color.

IR: Some would say they're putting themselves at risk — especially those involved in prostitution.

PARSON: I don't know if that's fair. Would we do that with victims of car theft? With victims of burglary? Do we say, "Hey, you shouldn't have moved into that neighborhood?"

I don't entertain that. I think it's disrespectful to the victims.

The fact is, whether they're engaged in legal or illegal activities, they're being victimized at a higher rate than other people. When we're talking about commercial street sex, I understand why they're doing it, though I can't really empathize, because I'm just a dopey white guy.

What do I know from being transgender and kicked out of the house and trying to get medication and hormones and training and education? I've got it great compared to them. When they tell me they're forced to go on the streets, which puts them in a position to be victimized, who am I to question?

Whether you're a prostitute, a bus driver, a retired U.S. Capitol police officer — all of whom I know as transgendered people — you don't deserve to be the victim of a crime.

And that's hard to get through to the general population, sometimes even to the GLB part of the community. They don't understand transgendered people a lot of times, either. Once you get out of the GLBT community, there's a total lack of understanding toward their plight and the circumstances they're living with.

IR: What are some of the basic challenges of dealing with transgendered people?

PARSON: For one thing, learning to refer to them the way they want to be referred to. You're sitting here across from me, a white male in his late 30s, and if you tell me your name is Betty, why the hell should I care? Now, there are some instances where your legal name is important to us, but there are appropriate ways to ask that question.

I can say, "Betty, I understand this is the name you want me to use to refer to you. I can't use that on the report. I will certainly put down that that's your preference, but I need your legal name, and I hope you understand."

That's not disrespectful, that's not irrelevant, that's not unprofessional. Compare it to, "Listen, buddy, don't give me this shit that your name's Betty, give me your real name."

IR: Are there parts of the GLBT community that are particularly tough to deal with?

PARSON: There are two segments where I'm having to focus my educational efforts. One is the transgender community; the other is youth of color. I've presented at youth conferences and literally been asked to leave, because they did not want police officers there. That was an eye-opening experience because I thought I'd be welcomed with open arms.

What I learned was: this is their safe space. If I want to learn from them, it's got to be on their terms. Cops have to learn that.

So often, if the door doesn't open, we kick it in. You can't do that when you're talking about the gay community. That's hard for me. I'm a street cop. I'm a door-kicker. That's my personality.

I really have to temper that side and think with my counseling side — believe it or not, I have a degree in counseling — and think, ok, what's going on here? Why am I getting a bad reaction? What do I portray to them?

So I dress down. I still have my gun, my badge, and they still recognize me as a police officer. But it's not as hard core. There are times when they have to see me in that hard-core role. But when I'm coming into their safe space, I need to try and be respectful.

IR: What's the hardest thing in helping other police officers learn these things?

PARSON: Police officers are generally very polar people. It's either legal or it's illegal. It's either right or it's wrong. Yes or no. Good guy, bad guy. Man, woman, gay, straight. You're getting arrested or you're not getting arrested.

Trangenderism challenges that polarity, because you can be looking at someone who is clearly exhibiting all the traits of A and they say they're B. And that can't be, right? You can't do that!

And then, you throw in the technical and legal issues transgender people present for us: How do you refer to them in paperwork? Where do you house them as prisoners? Who has to search them? Holy shit! You just rocked our world.

That's what I deal with: A cop saying, "I don't care. If it looks like a man, I'm calling it him." Or, "If his ID says Bob, his name is Bob. I don't care what he says. He's a man."

IR: How do you broach these subjects with other officers?

PARSON: First, I understand how cops deal with stress. They have to laugh. Either that, or they beat people up, or they smoke, or they drink, or they do other things that are bad for them. I prefer laughter.

So I try and approach these subjects that way. But trust me, it's uncomfortable. I'll stand in front of the biggest, butchest guy in the room, as straight as he can be, and I get in his space. I crowd him, put my groin in his face — he's sitting down, I'm standing up — and say, "Hey, big boy, how does it feel?"

We talk about his reaction. We talk about his discomfort. We talk about professionalism. We talk about, "If I were a woman and did that to you in a bar, how would you react? You'd be getting my phone number. Why is it different now? Why does that challenge your being?"

We talk about why there's anger. For some, there's sadness, because they have family members dealing with being gay or transgendered. For others, it's an epiphany: "I've never thought about it like that!"

I do this exercise where I go around the room and call people names: You're a "nigger," you're a "spic," you're a "chink," every name I can think of. And people react. Oh, do people react!

And I stop and say, "Okay, what do you feel about me right now? If you as a police officer heard these words directed at a co-worker, or somebody on the street, would you react? Of course, you'd do something. But how many times have you heard the word 'faggot' come out of somebody's mouth and didn't have the same feeling?"

Most people admit, all the time. So I say, "Okay, how's that word different? Why doesn't it deserve the same stigma? What's behind that?"

I've had some people afterwards say, "Next time my kid says, 'That's so gay,' I'm giving them a hand upside the head. I'd never thought about this before."